I have preordered two books this year, both in response to pre-publication hype that lasted months and had me salivating for the book in question. The first, Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, ended up being everything I hoped it would be. The second is Gideon the Ninth, a book I’m pretty sure I added to my Amazon wishlist in January and now somehow it is September and it’s finally been released and I’ve read it.
And … well. I wouldn’t quite use the word disappointed. Okay, yeah, I would, because I am kind of disappointed with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, it means that I went into it wanting my world changed and did not get that. Gideon the Ninth is a good book. Depending on how it survives in my memory, despite the four-star review I gave it on Goodreads I can imagine it sneaking onto my end-of-year list anyway despite its flaws. But this is going to be a rare mixed review from me; normally I don’t review four-star books– it’s usually extreme enthusiasm or warnings to stay away, and this will be neither.
Let’s start with the part I can say unreservedly positive things about: if you can get a first edition of this book, with the black-stained pages, do it. Gideon the Ninth as a physical artifact is a rare piece of art; the paper feels great, the endpapers are nice, the gold embossing on the actual hardcover is gorgeous, and there is something primordially satisfying about flipping through black-stained pages and watching them settle back down, to the point where I frequently found myself doing it for the hell of it. I tried to get video of it and couldn’t get anything I was happy with, but if you want to read this, go get it right now, because the black edges are only going to be on the first edition and you want them. The book has already gone back for a second printing, so get going.
I have never been able to use “not enough lesbian necromancers” as a complaint about a book before, although now that I think about it I can complain that literally every book I’ve ever read does not feature enough lesbian necromancers now that I’ve conceived of the idea. And make no mistake: lesbian necromancers are mentioned on the cover and the phrase “lesbian necromancers in space” has been a big part of the pre-release promo of this book. The thing is, they’re not really in space– they travel from one planet to another at one point but space travel really isn’t a thing this book is concerned about, and the lion’s share of the action takes place in a single building. When I started reading this I said on Twitter that it felt like Kameron Hurley had written a Gene Wolfe book, and that’s still true but there are undeniable echoes of Gormenghast in this as well. And yes, there are necromancers– lots of them– and Gideon is indeed a lesbian, but other than a mild crush on another character and whatever the hell her relationship is with the other major character of the book is, the “lesbian necromancer” angle is somehow left less explored than you might think.
Weak worldbuilding is kind of a major problem, really; Gideon and Harrowhawk, her necromancer, are of the Ninth House, out of (presumably) nine total, and the book basically takes representatives of Houses two through nine and dumps them into a crumbling castle to … compete? over … something? Like, they’re trying to become Lictors, or maybe it’s Lyctors, I don’t remember and the book’s in my bedroom, only what a Lictor is is never really very carefully explained, the characters themselves don’t really know what they’re being asked to do, and the very nature of the contest itself is left deliberately unclear, even to the characters. This isn’t me not being a careful enough reader; the characters are literally told that the only rule is not to open locked doors uninvited and then the dude in charge basically shrugs his shoulders and walks away. They spend most of the rest of the book collecting keys and eventually there’s somewhat of a murder mystery. Imagine Myst, only with lots of skeletons and something like twenty characters to keep track of. It’s kind of a lot. I can’t wrap my head around how this world works at all, and the author mostly doesn’t want you to.
I would forgive you if you were, at this point, wondering why I’m saying I still liked the book. And here’s the thing: this is Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel, and the last few pages make it clear that a sequel is coming, and where Muir excels is her actual, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph writing. I just wish the whole book hung together as well as any individual page does, because her writing is gorgeous and a joy to read. Gideon herself is a fascinating character for the most part even if some of her decisions don’t necessarily make a ton of sense and her dialogue is weirdly anachronistic a lot of the time (no one else in the book talks like Gideon does) and I genuinely wanted to know more about her. I think ultimately the best comparison I can make is to Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, a book I actually didn’t finish but was nonetheless so oozing with potential that the idea that I might not buy her second book never even occurred to me. And that’s ultimately where I’m at with Gideon the Ninth: this is not a great book, but Tamsyn Muir is absolutely going to write great books in the future, and I’m excited to have gotten in on the ground floor.