Book Review: Gideon the Ninth

Posted: September 29, 2019 in Critical Hit, Uncategorized
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Warning: spoilers

In many respects, Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is a superb, original novel; in others, it is a needlessly frustrating one. In the days since I finished reading it, my thoughts in each of these directions have met, overlapped and – for the most part – separated out again without resolving the dissonance, leaving me to wonder which aspects of storytelling I most value in a work, and why. If I skew towards the negative, am I being unduly harsh on a novel which I ultimately enjoyed and whose sequels I plan to read? If I skew towards the positive, am I being overly kind to a story whose discrepancies come more sharply into focus the longer I have to consider them? What matters more to my stance as a reviewer: the feelings I had while reading a book, or my tempered analysis of it? In this case, I’m honestly not sure, but I hope that writing this review will be clarifying for someone, even if it isn’t me.

Gideon the Ninth begins with its titular heroine trying and failing to run away from home to join the cohort, aka the space army – trying, because the home in question is the Ninth House, a sect of necromancers set on a desolate planet in a system run by same; failing, because Gideon, who is not a necromancer despite being raised by them, knows too many House secrets to be allowed to leave. Her planned departure is thwarted by the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, aka Harrow, her sole age-mate in the Ninth after a terrible plague wiped out all the other children during their infancy. Harrow, a highly skilled necromancer and heir to the Ninth, is a constant thorn in Gideon’s side, and has been for their entire lives.

But as it turns out, Harrow has need of Gideon. The immortal Emperor of the Resurrection – a man who became God and a God who became a man, who has ruled for ten thousand years – has sent a missive to the Houses asking for each necromantic heir and their sworn cavalier to come to Canaan House on the First planet, a planet of ruins and mystery, to undergo trials to become Lyctors: the immortal, most powerful Hands of the Emperor. Or, almost immortal: after nine thousand years, the existing First Lyctors have dwindled in number – hence the need for trials to attain replacements. In order to attend, survive and pass the trials, Harrow needs a cavalier primary: a swordsman, bodyguard and confidant. And as her existing cavalier is manifestly not up to the task, that leaves Gideon to fill the gap.

Arriving on the First, Gideon and Harrow – and, by extension, the audience – are soon introduced to the representatives of the other Houses, all with their own agendas. Under the guidance of the enigmatic Teacher and a literal skeleton crew (because necromancy), the necromancers and cavaliers are given one single rule to start them on the journey to Lyctorhood: open no locked doors in Canaan House without permission. But the First is a dangerous place to be, and when people start turning up dead, the stakes are raised: it’s not just about becoming a Lyctor any more – it’s about surviving.

For the first two thirds of the story, Gideon the Ninth is a tense, characterful and wholly original species of locked room mystery. Though Gideon has grown up around necromancers, she has no real understanding of the various theorems and methods they employ, and as such, the readers learn these details along with her. Rather than making this an excuse to infodump, however, Muir uses Gideon’s ignorance as a deliberate tease: though the system of necromancy feels both compelling and well thought out, it maintains a tense mystique by dint of being under-explained, discussed primarily by experts who, with few exceptions, have no reason to give a 101 rundown of their discipline. As a narrative technique, it reminds me most of the way we slowly learn about gems, fusion, the diamonds and the history of Homeworld in the early seasons of Steven Universe: an organic, background tuition that rewards an attentive audience with glimpses of a hidden, but nonetheless coherent, whole.

In this context, the trials that Gideon and Harrow start to undergo – to say nothing of the process by which Harrow works out what the trials are – make for gripping reading. We’re given enough identifying glimpses of the other characters to get a feel for them without being led by the hand, and as their motives start to become more distinct, this characterisation – with what is ultimately revealed to be one glaring exception – bears up admirably.

And it’s here that we enter true spoiler territory: because while the first two thirds of the book are exceptional, it’s the final third that gets a little dicey. For me, this was exacerbated by the fact that, until I reached the end of Gideon the Ninth and saw that it was book one of a series, I’d been thinking of it as a standalone novel. In my defence, until you finish the final chapter, there’s nothing printed anywhere in/on the physical copy to indicate otherwise, which I’d argue is a discourtesy to the reader: knowing whether a book is part of a series changes your expectations of its structure, and it was confusing in the extreme to feel that the build-up of the first two thirds, all of which centred around the mysteries of Lyctorhood, had suddenly become secondary to a different, belatedly-revealed conflict. This would’ve been forgivable if said conflict had made sense; instead, however, it has the unfortunate effect of making certain key aspects of what came before feel weird and illogical.

Specifically – and to those who want to remain unspoiled, turn away now – the problem lies in the Big Reveal about Dulcinea Septimus, the chronically ill necromancer of the Seventh House. At the finale of the book, we learn that Dulcinea is not who she pretends to be: instead, she is Cytherea, one of the Emperor’s still-living Lyctors who, for reasons that don’t really parse, has decided to try and kill off the would-be Lyctors. To quote the explanation she gives to Palamedes Sextus, one of Gideon and Harrow’s allies:

I knew that if I ruined his Lyctor plans – killed the heirs and cavaliers to all the other eight Houses – I’d draw him back to the system, but I had to do it in a subtle enough way that he wouldn’t bring the remaining Hands with him. If I had arrived in full force, he’d have turned up on a war footing, and sent the Lyctors to do all the dirty work like always. This way he’s lulled into a false sense of… semisecurity, I suppose. And he won’t even bother coming within Dominicus’s demesne. He’ll sit out there beyond the system – trying to find out what’s happening – right where I need him to be.

As a statement viewed on its own, the logic of this hangs together. In the context of the novel up until this point, however, it manifestly does not, which makes the nearly forty page long, emotionally fraught battle sequence that follows ring frustratingly hollow once you’ve had a spare moment to think through the implications.

For instance: we are told, over and over again, that there is no communication allowed between Canaan House and anywhere else in the system, even in the case of an emergency. During the trials and until their completion, the First is meant to be functionally cut off. This only changes by accident, when the members of the Second House, frightened by the ongoing deaths and affronted by the seeming lawlessness that permits them to happen, kill Teacher and send an illicit transmission, which only reaches the Emperor because it’s not strong enough to reach a neighbouring planet and because his ship, for undisclosed reasons, is the only one close enough to hear it. During the Emperor’s brief appearance at the finale, we’re given no reason to believe he suspected Cytherea of treachery prior to this point, and by the same token, we’re also told he either can’t or won’t set foot on the First again – so why was he near the system at all? How was Cytherea’s plan meant to work, if she couldn’t possibly count on the Emperor showing up in response to her disruption?

And if, as seems to be implied, Cytherea wasn’t already suspected of treachery by the Emperor, then why not simply attack him elsewhere instead of constructing a needlessly elaborate plan to draw him back to the First? It’s hinted at that the Emperor can’t be killed except on the First (or possibly by the being entombed forever on the Ninth; the details are deliberately hazy, presumably for future plot reasons) but if so, there’s good reason to have been clearer on this point, just as it makes no sense to emphasise the lack of outside communication and then hinge the whole finale on its ultimate necessity.

Working backwards from this point, we end up with yet more questions about Dulcinea/Cytherea’s actions prior to being exposed. Most pressingly: how was she able to send her murderous bone construct after Gideon and the two members of the Fourth House when she was under constant medical supervision by Harrow, Palamedes and Camilla? The logical answer is that the construct was acting autonomously – but if so, then why, when Gideon and one of the Fourth were sleeping in the same room, did it only murder one of them? It’s hinted that there’s a long-game reason for this – “You don’t even know what you are to me,” Cytherea tells Gideon, along with, “I’ve spared you before,” – but given that, to all intents and purposes, Gideon dies during the finale, an act of self-sacrifice that elicits no reaction from Cytherea, who was literally trying to murder her at the time, this feels like an inadequate explanation. And as whatever special feelings Cytherea might have for Gideon presumably don’t extend to Harrow, the fact that Dulcinea helped Harrow on multiple occasions – not just to understand the trials, but to survive them – further muddies the water.

Throw in the fact that Cytherea’s appearance is the first time we learn anything at all about the existing, original Lyctors, and it’s hard not to feel frustrated. To all intents and purposes, she’s a reveal that comes out of nowhere, taking the existing emotional conflict and mystery the book had worked so hard to build – the megatheorem, Ianthe’s ascension – and steering it in a different direction. Without such a hard left turn at the end, I might have been content to ignore other, seemingly minor questions about the worldbuilding, but when the narrative rug gets yanked out from under your feet, it’s human nature – in my case, anyway – to wonder if that ultimate instability was hinted at in earlier, smaller missteps.

Such as: if Cytherea was the only threat to the trialgoers all along, then why was Teacher so adamant that other, dangerous entities were lurking in Canaan House? If Gideon was raised by people who feared and hated her on an isolated, desolate planet with no access to anywhere else, then where did she get her comics, sunglasses and pornography? What’s going on in the rest of the empire, and how much of it does Gideon know about? If the Emperor is actually as benevolent as the ending implies (which, that’s a whole other area of potential criticism re: imperium, albeit a sidebar to the plot of this first instalment) then why is he constantly at war? And why, in a space-age setting with guns and magic, are cavaliers expected to learn swordplay? It’s the kind of detail that seems like it should have some minor in-world justification – I’m honestly not picky; swords are cool and I’m very hyped to see them here – but none is ever provided.

(Also, I could do with fewer descriptions of eye colour. Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% a sucker for Interesting And Pretty Eyes, but given how striking Muir’s descriptions are otherwise compared with how repeatedly she describes the same people’s eyeballs, it ends up being a little too much of a good thing.)

All these nitpicks don’t mean much on their own, but taken collectively, they’re not so much grating as disappointing – as, indeed, is the aforementioned part of the ending where Gideon seems to die. I say seems to, because there’s so much about Gideon’s mysterious backstory that we don’t yet know – to say nothing of the fact that we’re dealing with literal necromancy – that I don’t trust for a hot second that she’s actually permadead. If she is, my queer ass will be pissed as hell, because giving me an awesome snarky lesbian protagonist and then killing her is profoundly Not Bros; but if she’s not, I still have a deep and abiding dislike of the Surprise Cliffhanger Death trope. Making Harrow think Gideon is dead for an emotional gut-punch is one thing; making the reader think so too is quite another. It feels like a gotcha! moment to me, an unwelcome flirtation with the dead lesbian trope – and if it’s not a flirtation, then that’s even worse, because AUGH.

And yet – and yet! – the reason this is an emotionally bifurcated review, despite how much time I’ve spent laying out my grievances, is because the rest of the book – the parts that work – are absolutely amazing. Both in terms of the narration and the character banter, Muir has gone all-in on a mixture of modern snarkasm and gothic shade, the effect of which is equal parts hilarious and (in a good way) disturbing. The descriptions of necromancy and bone magic are graphically vivid in the most linguistically skilled and memorable ways; the plotting is tight, and – I cannot emphasise this enough – the concept of angry lesbian necromancers in space is so goddamn appealing, it’s hard to put into words. It’s like our collective inner teenage gothgirl got to rub her little queer hands all over science fiction, and I love how unapologetically For The Aesthetic the resulting story is, both thematically and narratively.

The real strength of Gideon the Ninth, however, is the enemies to friends to almost-dating arc of Gideon and Harrow. Their banter is crisp, their emotional histories, both singly and when intertwined, are complicated and tragic, and Muir does an absolutely spectacular job of making you root for the two of them – not just as a couple, but as individuals. I’ll be genuinely, heartbreakingly angry if it turns out that Gideon is permanently dead, but despite my misgivings about the end of the book, it’s a measure of how much trust Muir’s writing earned otherwise that I’m confident enough in my happier suspicions to be eagerly awaiting the next volume.

Gideon the Ninth: it’s a hell of a debut novel, and while the structure is buggy near the end, there’s a great deal of scope for future instalments to rectify matters, or at least to clarify them. I’d still prefer to have that clarity now, of course, but the bulk of the narrative does so much right that, until I can judge the whole series in its entirety, I’m willing to give the wobbly parts the benefit of the doubt. I don’t recommend it without reservation, but I do recommend it strongly – and that, I think, is the most important thing.

Comments
  1. The critic Vincent Canby had a phrase once, “Consistency only counts if you don’t like the movie.” Which I find useful in explaining mixed reactions: if despite the flaws I like the book, they’re forgivable. If not, they loom larger.
    But then there’s really mixed responses like this, which are much harder to work through when I have them, let alone review the book.

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