5/5 stars — a complex, captivating tale of necromancy and reluctant allies
Blending fantasy and science fiction, Gideon the Ninth is a white-knuckle ride built of magic, swordfights, and uneasy interplanetary politics. It's half uneasy statesmanship, half competition for the prize of godhood. And it's spectacular.
I never do justice to the books I love most when I'm writing reviews. I highly recommend reading Melanie's review here, because she captured my own emotions far better than I managed, and also her review is wonderful. I'll say what I've heard from half a dozen other readers: this book feels like it was written for me.
Gideon Nav, the eponymous main character, is one of two surviving members of her generation of the Ninth House. The other is Harrowhark Nonagesimus, heir to the Ninth House, powerful necromancer, and Gideon's longtime nemesis. The only hope to rehabilitate the moldering Ninth lies in their cooperation: for Harrow to pass the Emperor's trial and join his host of immortal servants, she'll need Gideon to serve as her cavalier.
Gideon is a repository of dirty jokes, stubborn self-preservation, and compassion she tries to keep under wraps. She's brute force made human, and she'll clobber you with a smile on her face. Harrow is her foil: dutiful, sharply intellectual, and so quiet you won't notice her until one of her conjured skeletons stabs you in the back. A huge part of this book's brilliance lies in the fact that their personalities are complementary...unless they choose to get in each other's way, which they often do. The Gideon-Harrow rivalry and its eventual transition to a reluctant alliance and then to something closer is viscerally satisfying to read. Their dialogue, rapier-sharp, carries about five kinds of tension.
The other characters, from Harrow's fellow would-be immortal necromancers to the inhabitants of the decrepit First, are equally well developed. Even people who only appear for a few pages feel three-dimensional and come complete with complex motivations and quirks. In the other necromancers and cavaliers, Gideon and Harrow find allies and enemies—and it's rarely clear which are which. Readers who enjoyed the dynamic of the arena in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games will relish the deadly puzzle posed by the Emperor's test and these ever-shifting alliances. This is definitely a character-driven novel, and Gideon and her mile-high snark are integral to the way the story unfolds.
Tamsyn Muir excels at worldbuilding as well. The magic is developed and explained in glorious detail, thankfully through Gideon's eyes so readers (who presumably likewise aren't necromancers) will understand the relevant intricacies. Suffice it to say that in the labyrinthine First House, the twists have twists and there lurk all the horrifying bone monsters you could possibly want in a book about necromancy. Further, there's enough discussion of the various Houses and their specialties to add dimension to the characters from each place, but not so much it becomes tedious. The sequel is likely to elaborate on the history and structure of the world, too, as Harrow joins the Emperor in his war.
On a personal note, it meant a lot to me to read an SFF book by a queer author about a sword-wielding butch lesbian. This is the representation I want (although I'm bi, the wlw part holds true). Gideon's love of women is no secret, but there's never any discussion of her sexuality, nor is there any objectification even when she clearly finds someone attractive. Muir captured the lack of the (toxic) male gaze in a refreshing way. And although every queer woman has probably had her fill of the dead lesbian trope, I give this ending a pass for a number of reasons, not least of which is that there were other queer characters who survived.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoyed Caitlin Starling's The Luminous Dead, K.A. Doore's Chronicles of Ghadid, and Amal al-Mohtar and Max Gladstone's This is How You Lose the Time War. Also, if you're a fan of audiobooks, this one's narrator is fantastic!
ETA: After listening to the audiobook for the second time in less than a month, I'd like to note that the narrator, Moira Quirk, is absolutely fantastic with the various character voices!
content warnings: character death(s), gore, child death, discussion of past character suicide