Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of The Ninth House
Publisher: Tor.com (September 10, 2019)
Length: 448 pages
This one’s going to be tough to review, and I thought a week of mulling it over would have helped me figure out my feelings, but nope! If anything, I’m even more torn. For me, the problem stems from the uneven nature of the book, specifically the difference in pacing, interest, and entertainment value between the first and second half of the story.
To begin, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir starts with a introduction to our eponymous protagonist, an orphan who has grown up living in servitude to the Ninth House. For as long as she can remember, death and necromancy has been a part of Gideon Nav’s life, as well as being tormented by the young scion of the house, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, a powerful bone witch in her own right. Eventually though, Gideon becomes tired of always having to play the servant to the princess and devises a plan to get off planet in an escape shuttle. However, before she can make her move, a major shakeup at the Ninth House suddenly causes all of Gideon’s plans to fall apart.
Now Harrow has been summoned to a competition held by the Emperor of the Houses, and as the necromancer representing her house, she will need a cavalier. Promising freedom as a reward, Harrow manages to convince Gideon, who is a skilled swordswoman, to fill the role. But as the two of them arrive at the First House where the competition will be held, it becomes clear things will be much more complicated than they thought. For one thing, the instructions they are given make no sense. Harrow and the other representatives of each house are only given the vaguest details of what will happen, and no rules—only that the necromancer who wins will be given immortality, and that they will need to ascend with a cavalier by their side.
Desperate to save her house, Harrow needs to win. Which means she also needs Gideon. But the two of them have never gotten along, and Gideon immediately becomes frustrated by her necromancer’s secretive ways and lack of communication. Curious to find out more about the First House and the contest, she takes it upon herself to do some exploring, making the acquaintance of the other contestants as well as their cavaliers. Not counting the First or the Ninth, seven other Houses are vying for the prize of Lyctor-hood, and all their representatives possess their own individual talents and quirks.
And so, that that brings me to the one of the major obstacles I encountered with Gideon the Ninth. Now would be a good time to mention that I highly recommended studying the list of characters at the beginning of the book before you start reading, simply because of the sheer number of people involved in this clunky saga. It also doesn’t help that every character seems to have at least two names. Needless to say, it’s hard to get into a story when so much of your attention in the first half is tied up in trying to figure out who is who.
Second of all—and this is a biggie—the writing style is real tough on the eyes and until you get used to it (if you ever do), it can present a fair bit of struggle. Not to mention Gideon’s snark and anachronistic slang against this strangely formal style of writing makes it feels about as incongruous as her aviator glasses on the cover. Unfortunately, this also had a way of making the character come across as extra obnoxious and trying too hard to be the ultimate edgelord. To be honest, Gideon’s insufferably snide personality and her sometimes juvenile remarks often made me want to throw in the towel, but it was Harrow’s awesomeness that kept me reading.
But before I get too negative, recall how I did say the book picks up in the second half—and boy, does it ever! I can’t recall the last time a book made me do such a complete one-eighty. No surprise, this also coincided with the point where the story transformed itself into a gothic-style murder mystery. From that moment onwards, I was hopelessly and irrevocably hooked, and that’s no exaggeration—whereas it took me about a week to read the first two hundred pages, I devoured the rest of the novel in about two days. That Gideon the Ninth can be considered a slow-burner goes without saying, but I promise that the latter part of the novel makes up for it in spades.
As such, I was left with a conundrum. If it were possible to rate the two halves of this book separately, the first half would probably earn a 2.5 to 3 stars while the second half would be awarded a full-hearted 5. While it is not ideal, I’ve decided to settle for a 3.5 rating overall—with the caveat that the story takes a long time to build, and readers might not see the payoff until much later. It’s hard for me to go into the details of the plot, the intricacies of the world-building, or the relationships of the characters without giving too much away, which makes it difficult for me to discuss the positives, but suffice to say this is a book where I am glad I persevered.
And here’s the thing—on principle, I don’t DNF, even though they say life is too short for bad books. But then once in a while, a book like Gideon the Ninth will come along and make me glad I hold to that rule. I’m just so glad I kept reading until the end, because against all odds, I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit. So, if you’re thinking about picking this novel up, I say give it a chance. It has all the hallmarks of a “either love it or hate it” book, and the fact that its elements are so different and eclectic means that it’s best experienced personally. I didn’t think it would be for me, but obviously the end of the book changed my mind, and after this wild ride, I find myself looking forward to checking out the next volume in the series.