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Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir3 stars
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Gideon the Ninth is a spectacular mess of a book. It fails as often as it works, and with the same degree of commitment from its author. In her debut, Tamsyn Muir displays enough imagination for any three writers and only a passing acquaintance with storytelling discipline. The resulting novel is a lot like one of the giant, beastly skeletal constructs that we encounter in its pages, smashing through walls and floors like some uncontrollable literary golem that’s broken its restraints. There is no middle ground here, gang. Readers are either gushing helplessly over this book, or they’ve DNF’d it within the first hundred pages. If Tamsyn Muir had pulled it off flawlessly, it might have been a more digestible read, but something tells me it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting to talk about.

Gideon Nav has grown up in the sepulchral holdings of the Ninth House, located deep within a crevasse on a world belonging to an empire whose ruler is an immortal deity. Gideon is a foundling, her origins shrouded in mystery, and she’s lived in indentured servitude to the House, where she’s nurtured a lifelong and mutual hatred between herself and its heir, young Harrowhark Nonagesimus. One of the stranger aspects of Muir’s world building is that we never seem to see many people in this presumably galactic empire. The Ninth House practices necromancy, because that’s just a cool gothy thing to do, and so there are hordes of animated skeletons to do all the menial work.

Gideon has planned her escape from the Ninth, where she hopes to use her considerable sword fighting skills in the Cohort, the imperial military. But her freedom is thwarted by Harrow, who compels Gideon to serve as her cavalier — a kind of personal champion and aide-de-camp — on a mission of utmost importance, Harrow says, to the continued survival of the Ninth House.

The Emperor has summoned necromancers and their cavaliers from all nine ruling Houses to his decrepit palace, Canaan House, a crumbling near-ruin on a watery world. They are to compete for the position of lyctor, which I gathered to be something like a praetorian guard, and a position that grants, if not actual immortality, certainly vast life extension and inestimable power to those who hold it. But Canaan House itself is staffed only by a small handful of priests. Their chief spokesman, Teacher, offers no clear instructions on how the competition will proceed, and there’s only one rule: don’t try to pass any locked door without permission.

Can’t mince words here: much of the first half of the book is a tedious grind. Muir has, to put it politely, pacing issues, and her cast of necromancers and cavaliers is a bit too large to absorb all at once. Everyone has long aristocratic names which are all majestically sexy sounding but still a pain in the ass to keep track of, and for the longest time they’re fairly indistinguishable from one another as characters. (There’s a dramatis personae at the beginning of the book, and trust me, you will be referencing it often.) Then there’s Gideon and Harrow themselves, who really are irritating, self-satisfied, snarky teenage edgelords. Every time they open their mouths, they remind you of why you never want to log onto Discord anymore. It’s as if they have no personalities, only attitudes.

If you’re someone who tapped out of the book anywhere along the line here, I am completely sympathetic. Muir needed her editor to rein her in a little here, but she writes as if she has a million ideas and needs to get them all down right away.

Gideon and Harrow, always trying to stay one step ahead of rival Houses, discover that the locked doors of Canaan House access an elaborate facility for testing new necromantic spells. As in a video game, access to further levels involves finding more keys, usually by first defeating a fearsome boss monster or figuring out how to get past a seemingly impassable death trap. But before long, other necromancers and their cavaliers begin turning up dead, and the novel shifts all of its genre-blending into overdrive, melding space fantasy with a kind of Agatha Christie And Then There Were None whodunnit party. Gideon and Harrow have to confront not only the reality that surviving will require teaming up with rival Houses (leading to the expected “who can you trust” dilemmas), but their own conflicted feelings and loyalties to each other as well. That’s a coded way of saying Tamsyn Muir is jumping with both feet into the enemies-to-lovers trope.

As frustrating as Gideon the Ninth can be, reading it does leave you with a sense of admiration for the sheer determination it must have required to complete. It’s as if the story was a kind of monster gestating in Tamsyn Muir’s brain, that she simply had to put down in writing even if it killed her. There are times when the book doesn’t feel like it was written so much as willed into existence.

And it’s perhaps for this reason that the book’s final third feels so triumphant. You can practically see Tamsyn Muir leveling up her skills from chapter to chapter in real time, until our patience is rewarded in the last hundred pages with many mysteries unraveled, some powerfully emotional character moments bringing real tension and release where once there was simply exasperation, and a showstopper of a climactic battle to rival any of the better Marvel movies. I won’t say all of it ends up making sense, or that all your questions will be answered. Gideon the Ninth doesn’t offer us an especially smooth or easy journey, but by the time it reaches its destination, it’s a kind of revelation. There’s more to this dense and daunting saga than skin and bone. There’s heart and soul as well.

Followed by Harrow the Ninth.