Review – Muir, “Gideon the Ninth”

Tamsyn Muir, “Gideon the Ninth” (2019) (read aloud by Moira Quirk) – People love this book! It’s about Gideon Nave, who lives on a planet that sucks in a solar system that sucks and both are ruled by necromancers. Every planet has its own kind – martial necromancers, sexy necromancers, brainy necromancers, etc., you know how contemporary scifi likes to sort things into houses and so on based on one or two traits – and the Ninth, Gideon’s, is run by the gothiest necromancers. You might think all necromancers are pretty goth, what with the reanimating skeletons and all, but the Ninth is extra goth, all about decay, darkness, stuff being old, repentance, etc.

Gideon doesn’t fit in that well, because she’s big, bluff, lively, and rebellious. She eventually makes a path for herself as a swordswoman. She’s also the only one of two people her age on her planet due to a ghastly accident near her birth. The other is Harrow. Harrow is the heir to the noble house who runs the place. She’s petite, delicate, and a manipulator, and as into necromantic magic as Gideon is into swords. They don’t get along. But they’re forced to go to the First planet, where the necromantic empire got its start, to get into a competition with all the other houses/planets. One (1) necromancer and one (1) swordsman from each planet are to compete to become, like, extra-special vaguely-immortal necromancers, and fight by the side of the necromancer emperor himself!

Here’s the deal: this is a plot and a setup perfectly balanced to produce a neutral starting opinion in me, basically because elements that interest me (science fantasy! Swords!) get canceled out by elements that don’t (goth stuff! Oft-repeated plot elements and tropes from contemporary series-based speculative fiction!). Similarly, the ecstatic reception this book has received from many friends- on the one hand, they’re smart people whose opinions I respect, on the other, I know my own particular tastes differ. So… I come with a very open mind, and in the end, it was the quality of the writing, from structure down to syntax, that decided it. 

Aaaaand… that quality, while I could tell it would be just the thing to keep others more favorably inclined on the hook, was not the kind that I like. First, the book is surprisingly slow-moving for a popular bestseller about people with swords and magic fighting each other. After a pretty bravura opening, matters slow to a crawl when Gideon and Harrow get to the First planet. It’s a pretty funny twist, that they bring all these necromancy freaks and swordfighters to a big palace for a contest, but the Emperor’s flunkies don’t actually know what the contest is! And so, you get a long drawn out middle of everyone trying to figure shit out. You get leisurely introduced to all the weirdos from the assorted planet/houses, who of course have millennia of lore and rivalries and stereotypes about each other, not the worst worldbuilding but also the sort of stuff that will be familiar to anyone who has read contemporary SFF, living as it does under the shadow of Hogwarts. Not only do these weirdos need to banter, occasionally duel, get romantically obsessed with each other, etc., but they need to not just solve a mystery, but solve the mystery of what the mystery is! Too slow, and the stakes too abstract, for me. 

Then there’s the dialogue and humor. Here, I worry most about stepping on the toes of friends. I didn’t like it. Despite existing in a millennia-old undead empire presumably light-years from Earth, Gideon still thinks in memes and internet jokes. Honestly, the anachronism involved doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that Muir follows this into having most characters talk in a sort of early-2000s internet forum argot, a wordy idiom of exaggeration and affected cynicism. She wrings a lot of mileage from the contrast of aristocratic high diction and puns and/or a Boing Boing reader’s idea of “naughtiness.” Harrow and Gideon, for instance, repeatedly threaten each other in… not exactly “flowery” language, a “fuckwaffle” isn’t a flower, but you know, like, very wordy threats with a lot of silly words thrown in. Sometimes more than one, in a string! Think the way your freshman year dorm-mates who misquoted Monty Python would talk if they had all the time they wanted to come up with the most needlessly elaborate lines possible and deliver them with as much mustard as they could muster. It doesn’t help I listened to this as an audiobook!

Basically, this is a book for goths, or anyway, goths in the way goth-dom has taken shape in the last… well, here, I don’t know enough to say. I understand that the goth subculture was always big on irony and camp. This scans from my memories of youth. I do also vaguely get the idea that they – not just goths, either, but other youth subcultures at the time too, like metalheads, punks, to a certain extent nerds, hippies, and so on – used to take the whole subcultural thing more seriously, thought their customs, outfits, music, tropes etc. really were superior and would fight, or at least argue, the point. I’m not sure if that changed, or if I was just projecting- back when it mattered (i.e. adolescence), I was pretty violently opposed to subculture as a concept. It’s hard to project myself back there. Why did I care? 

Anyway! The points where this book rubbed against me seem to be points that either wouldn’t bother or would positively delight the contemporary, un-self-serious goth with a job and responsibilities. Moreover, the joy they could take from how dark, decadent, and skeleton-y (animated skeletons appear to do all the work, and being me, I wanted to know more about them, and think they’d probably have a better book in them, all amusing skeleton hi-jinks) would probably get them over rough patches, like the slow pace. If Muir has one strength, it’s atmospherics: even (especially?) with all the quipping, stuff does feel quite gothic. I’m glad they have something they can enjoy! This isn’t bad but it is definitively “not for me.” ***

Review – Muir, “Gideon the Ninth”

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