Gideon the Ninth is all about characters. The story’s strength lies in the relationship between Gideon and Harrow. These two young women hail from a backwater planet where they’ve grown up as enemies. Only, it’s a little more complicated than that. Gideon is sassy, rash, and rebellious. Meanwhile, Harrow is dark, harsh, and brimming with secrets. When these two are forced to team up to participate in a necromantic hunger games, with immortality as the prize, they’ll be forced to rely on each other and overcome the toxic dynamic they’ve established. These two are sassy as fuck, and their banter and wit is what brings these pages to life. So to speak.
On the subject of characters, while the main characters are very clear and fleshed out, the same is not true of the rest. When the houses come together, we are essentially introduced to 15 new characters at the same time. Each of them has a house name, a number name, a first name, a sobriquet, sometimes a nickname, sometimes a rank. Keeping track of who is who and what house they are and who’s whose necromancer or cavalier was all a bit confusing. Even with an appendix to reference knowing who was “the uncle“ was sometimes unclear, and who was “the third cavalier” required a trip to the appendix. Eventually the more important secondary characters crystallized into clearer portraits as the chaff were killed off, but it took a minute, and it was distracting.
The prose are full of wit and humor. It is present not just in the dialogue but in the author’s narrative. Overall, I’d tally this as a strength, but there were times when the jokes didn’t land or the parlance was so… youthful, contemporary? That it felt out of place. Sometimes it just sounds weird to hear a space necromancer say a sentence that would more likely come out of a zoomer‘s mouth. This might be a generational issue, I’m an old fucking man I can admit that, but for me there are a couple of moments where it jarred my suspension of disbelief. The writing is mostly quite good but there are also some oddly phrased sentences and arcane word choices which made the sentences flow awkwardly at times.
Gideon the Ninth’s worldbuilding paints a goth aesthetic on the bones of a dying universe. Loved it. Making it believable for two teenagers, one a sword fighter and the other necromancer, to leave their deep space home and travel to another world for a mysterious contest is a little bit of a trick, but Muir pulled it off deftly. One little issue was that everyone is using swords and magic but guns exist and yet no one uses them. There was a moment when Gideon finds an antique gun and knows what it is but then the story shies away from this issue. It would probably have been better to address it or ignore it entirely. No biggie just a nitpick. I also really enjoyed the necromancy. Particularly, once all of the characters from the other houses and their necromantic specialties came in to play. All of the magic was necromancy, but each house had their own spin. The world had a sense of history, the emperor and the cohort and the vague war they’re fighting. It was all well architected, all vaguely interconnected and doled at a pace befitting a mystery. You get little dribs and drabs of information that continually evolve your picture of the universe in which the characters live.
The plot revolves around a bit of a mystery. Everyone goes to a planet at the behest of the emperor in hopes of achieving necromantic immortality. But no one knows how they’re going to get it or what the rules are etc. It’s an enigmatic sort of grand melee that unfolds slowly, with each answer unlocking another question. I enjoyed piecing things together and exploring the grounds of the complex. I will note that it is not quite as satisfying as a traditional mystery because so many of the clues revolve around supernatural elements which lack established logic and thus don’t allow confident deductions. Still, it has a whodunnit vibe which I think went well with the necromancy themes.
All in all, I’d recommend this book. It had great characters that were vivacious and distinctive. The setting hit some delightfully macabre notes too. Some of the writing left a little to be desired and I didn’t always have a clear picture of the environs or the characters physically, but the plot was well-paced and the story was both unique and enjoyable.