“ONE FLESH, ONE END.”
Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel reaches out and grabs you in its skeletal fist from the very first page and doesn’t let go. Gideon The Ninth is witty, irreverent, and fresh as hell. It’s fucking delightful. It’s not all glitz, glam, and bones though – this is a book with a big ol’ heart hiding underneath the aviator glasses, laugh-aloud banter, and, of course, the mountain of corpses. This is a tight, polished narrative with twists and turns that were hinted at heavily in retrospect, yet take the reader completely by surprise as they unfold.
It’s hard to beat the elevator pitch Charles Stross applied to this book: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless emperor! Skeletons!” Honestly, that really does sum it up quite well, though it does gloss over the way your heart will be wrenched and squeezed as the stakes grow ever higher and our dear Gideon and her necromancer, Harrow, are forced through the gauntlet.
Gideon is about as punk rock as you can get if you grew up having absolutely no idea what “punk rock” was. She embodies the essence of punk. You may notice that she is, in fact, wearing aviators in the cover art. Stick it to the man, etc etc. Growing up roaming the halls of Drearburh, which is just as dreary as the name implies, likely did not help this tendency. Being raised by devout necromantic nuns whose idea of a good time involves rattling prayer bones had a similarly opposite effect on young Gideon. By eighteen, she’d already attempted to run away from home a total of eighty-six times.
‘You ordered a shuttle through deception,’ bubbled the marshal of Drearburh, whose main claim to fame was that he was more decrepit alive than some of the legitimately dead. He stood before her on the landing field and gurgled with indignation. ‘You falsified documents. You stole a key. You removed your cuff. You wrong this house, you misuse its goods, you steal its stock.’
‘Come on, Crux, surely we can come to some arrangement,’ Gideon coaxed, flipping her sword over and looking at it critically for nicks. ‘You hate me, I hate you. Just let me go without a fight and you can retire in peace. Take up a hobby. Write your memoirs.’
Pairing her up with the Lady Nonagesimus Harrowhark, who has totally, 100% drank the Drearburh Kool-Aid (skeletal face paint and all) is a bold choice when the Necrolord Prime (not a joke name) sends out a missive seeking out the best necromancers his houses have to offer along with their cavaliers…. Well, saddle up, sunshine, we’re going for a ride.
Gideon and Harrow’s relationship develops and changes across the course of the novel, often with some surprising twists. Watching as they slowly come to trust one another and gradually rewrite the story of their childhood together as the sole survivors of a plague which wiped out their generation is both entertaining and heartwarming. While Gideon starts out as a knock-off back-up cavalier after the original Ninth cavalier goes haring off across the galaxy, she steps into the role in every sense as she and Harrow learn to work with one another. Harrow is about as self-assured and arrogant as you can get, but Gideon’s stick-it-to-the-man attitude slowly manages to bring down some of those barriers… and rebuild the trust that’s needed to be a necromancer and cavalier team.
This dynamic duo is certainly tested against the horrors of Canaan house, which holds the key to Harrow ascending from mere necromancer to hand of the Necrolord, a Lyctor. Sixteen supplicants are sent to Canaan house, but only eight will be chosen to rise again as Lyctors, undead, undying, eternal, and powerful. Upon arrival, the rules of the house are passed along to them by the mysterious leader of the First House, a man known only as Teacher.
‘As for your instruction here, this is what the First House asks of you.’
The room drew breath together – at at least, all the necromancers did, alongside a goodly portion of their cavaliers. Harrow’s knuckles whitened. Gideon wished that she could flop into a seat or take a sly nap. Everybody was poised in readiness for the outlined syllabus, and scholarship made her want to die. There would be some litany of how breakfast would take place every morning at this time, and then there’d be study with the priests for an hour, and then Skeleton Analysis and History of Some Blood, and Tomb Studies, and, like, lunchtime, and finally Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone. The most she could hope for was Swords, Swords II, and maybe Swords III.
‘We ask,’ began Teacher, ‘that you never open a locked door unless you have permission.’
Everyone waited. Nothing happened. They looked at the little priest and he looked back, completely at his ease, his hands resting on his white-clad thighs, smiling vaguely. A nail went ping out of a rotting picture frame somewhere in the corner.
‘That’s it,’ said Teacher helpfully.
. . .
Then he added smilingly, ‘Welcome to Canaan House!’
As the necromancers and cavaliers from the various houses explore the haunted gothic palace in space, they begin to uncover the dark history of the Lyctors and hints as to the process that created them. Experimental labs, dark, deep pits, and strange constructs made of tendon and bone all do their best to take a piece out of the explorers. When the murders begin, tensions run high as suspicions and paranoia heighten. Even when they’re able to see what kills them, no one knows just who is behind the strange behaviors of the house; even Teacher himself is frightened for both the young potential Lyctors and for his own household.
It had assembled itself into the room by no visible means, since it never could have fit through one of the doors. It was simply just there, like a nightmare – a squatting, vertiginous hulk; a nonsense of bones feathering into long, spidery legs, leaning back on them fearfully and daintily; trailing jellyfish stingers made up of millions and millions of teeth all set into each other like a jigsaw. It shivered its stingers, then stiffened all of them at once with a sound like a cracking whip.
Muir pulls together each and every thread she’s left dangling around the plot in a gorgeous, cohesive braid at the novel’s conclusion. In doing so, she’ll also snatch your heart and tear it in two, but with a subtle promise of hope and optimism blended in to the carnage. It’s clear that nothing about this narrative is left to chance, and the puzzle pieces she’s left in play are ones that will most certainly be called back in the next book in this series: Harrow the Ninth. I am already hankering for more of Tamsyn Muir, and am incredibly excited to see how she contributes to the fantasy genre as a whole.