Sunday 8 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 83: "Gideon the Ninth" by Tamsyn Muir

Page count: 448 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 50 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won't set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon's sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

Selling this books under "Lesbian necromancers in space" feels a bit disingenuous. Yes, Gideon likes women, but there is very little romance of any kind to speak of, people are far too busy sniping at each other, challenging each other to duels, exploring their super creepy surrounding, solving grisly murders or trying to be the best necromancer they can be. I don't think the word lesbian is even used at any point throughout the story.

I've seen some people get completely beside themselves with enthusiasm about this book. Like full heart eyes emoji. I've seen it mentioned on more than one "Best of 2019"-list, which considering it came out in September, is impressive. While I really did think the book turned out to be a lot of fun, and rather splendid once we got past the rather draggy start and introduction of the ridiculously large cast of characters, there are absolutely things about the plot, characterisation and world building that could have been better. Quite a few times while reading, I found myself confused as to what was going on or who Gideon and/or Harrow were dealing with, and in a perfect book, that wouldn't be the case.

We find out far too little about most of the characters, or their motivations. A lot of them seem a bit anonymous and are really just names, so the impact once they turn up dead (and SPOILER! a LOT of the cast introduced at the beginning will end up dead over the course of the story, in many varied and increasingly horrible ways). I suppose the ones who survive longer become more familiar in the reader's mind. Even Gideon, our point of view character, could have been given more depth of characterisation. To be fair, I've seen several comparisons between this book and classic Agatha Christie mysteries, and in the ones with the really large cast of characters, it's not like most of the background characters get all that much attention. Then again, as the death count mounts, you can tick them off the list of suspects.

This book is technically a science fiction novel, as it's set in space and there is some sort of all-powerful God Emperor and there are space ships and each house seems to originate on a different home planet, but there's very little actual technology and most of the book is concerned with all kinds of necromancy and bone magic, all of which it's just taken for granted that the reader will understand. I will also warn those who don't like gore that there are some pretty horrific deaths that are described in really very visceral detail (see what I did there), but it's also very funny at times, and in places surprisingly moving.

There really is so much to like about the book as well. Gideon, our titular heroine, is almost frustratingly irreverent and defiant, while her patron/nemesis Harrow is a delightful and very crabby enigma. The whole contest in a crumbling wreck of a building/near-abandoned planet seems very devious and there are so many cool details revealed throughout, which is why I'm frustrated some of the details in the world building wasn't more clearly explained. Once we get past the slow set-up and things really start going off the rails, I was pretty much hooked and kept finding new excuses to listen to the book, so I could find out what would happen next.

I listened to this in audio, and Moira Quirk, the narrator, did an absolutely amazing job creating distinctive and engaging voices for the (at least initially) rather large cast. In the hands of a lesser narrator, a book with a plot this twisty and winding would have been almost incomprehensible, so I'm very impressed and probably enjoyed the book more thanks to her work making the characters come alive.

I should also warn that this is the first book in a series and it ends on a heck of a cliffhanger, so if you don't like waiting around for sequels, maybe wait until the full trilogy is published.

Judging a book by its cover: I am in utter awe of this cover, it's so incredibly badass, just like the book's titular character. Gideon in full action movie pose, striding away from what appears to be an explosion of bone and skeletons, supremely confident, with her rapier, her gauntlet, her corpse paint and her sun shades. While I think the publisher's chosen tag line for the book could be better, the cover art is perfection. If I were to do a list of favourite cover art of the year, this would certainly be included.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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