#REVIEW: GIDEON THE NINTH, by Tamsyn Muir

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.

#REVIEW: THE DRAGON REPUBLIC, by R.F. Kuang

I was a big fan of the first book in R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series– it ended up being very highly ranked in what was a very good year for reading– and I jumped on the sequel as fast as I could when it came out.

And … well, brace yourself. This is not one of my usual hyperbolic slobbery OMG GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW reviews. I still think you need to read it, but there’s gonna be a proviso or two, some quid pro quos … anyway, read on.

Trigger warning, for, like, everything that is bad. If you’ve ever needed a trigger warning of any kind do not read this book or this review.

The Poppy War starts out almost sorta feeling like a Harry Potter knockoff set in a China analogue, only Hogwarts is a military academy and Hermione is the main character instead of Harry. Oh, and she’s explicitly described as being an ethnic minority rather than being shoehorned into being one years later on the strength of her hair being described as curly, but that’s a whole different conversation. That conceit will last you about a third of the first book, and then Hermione, whose name is Rin in this book, burns out her fucking uterus with drugs because menstruation distracts her from her studies and then all the sudden it ain’t Harry Potter no more and it really never goes back. It goes dark and it goes violent and it goes really war-crimey and this is a book that I enjoyed reading quite a lot but it absolutely 100% is not for everyone. Rin eventually acquires the ability to produce and control fire, and … well, she doesn’t really use it to keep people warm.

I mean, they are warm, for the second or two until they burn to death, but not, like, in a good, comfy sort of way. The bad kind of warm. Where you’re screaming. And then you die. There’s lots of that. And the book honest to God ends with Rin committing what is basically genocide. Spoiler alert, I guess. That was book one, you should have read it by now.

Anyway.

The thing about The Dragon Republic is that it doesn’t start off with the comforting (ha, “comforting,” he called it) Harry Potter-esque maybe this is sorta YA beginning. No, the Rin in this book is already jaded as fuck and is basically a war criminal leading a gang of war criminals, and she spends the first 2/3 of the book drug-addicted, angry, depressed, suffering from massive holy shit-level fucking PTSD, and mostly unable to use her powers for various reasons. Oh, and also racism. Like entire groups of people in this book refuse to even treat Rin like she’s human. Lotsa racism.

The first book got dark. The Dragon Republic starts off dark, stays dark, and then trades that dark for a chic slightly darker dark once it gets going. And by the end of this one, we’ve completely upended everyone we’re fighting against and everyone we’re fighting against and the status quo is status gone, and everyone is miserable or dead or a refugee or all three except the ruling class, and fuck those guys anyway.

I four-starred it on Goodreads, but this is one of those books that really resists a star rating, because in many ways it’s just as good a book as the first one, and again, I really liked the first one. It’s just that it’s so fucking unrelentingly gritty that you want to wash your hands when you’re done reading it, and it’s hard to read because of that. It may end up on my end-of-year list anyway despite four-starring it, because it is what it is very, very effectively. It’s just that it’s a book where terrible things are happening all the time to main characters who are really only moderately sympathetic to begin with– saying Rin is kind of an asshole is a muted understatement– and … well, if you don’t want to read something like that, I’m not going to get mad at you. The first book Ain’t for Everybody. This book, I think, is for a slightly smaller subset of Ain’t for Everybody, because I think there will be people who read and enjoyed The Poppy War who will check out of this anyway, and again, I can’t be mad at them about it.

If you liked the first book, definitely pick this up, but if anything about this review made you think that you might be part of the Everybody that this Ain’t For, I’d gently suggest you listen to that intuition. R.F. Kuang is absolutely a writer of staggering talent, and I’m just as in for Book Three as I was for The Dragon Republic, but I just can’t recommend this book unconditionally. Enjoy, but enjoy with care.

#REVIEW: CHILDREN OF TIME, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

It is hyperbole, but only by a little bit, to state that I have hated every second of 2019. I won’t go into the details; if you’ve been reading here for a while and especially if you follow me on Patreon you know a lot of them by now, but this has been the single worst year of my life by a wide margin and there are still four fucking months of it left.

The one shining bright spot of 2019 has been the books I’ve been reading. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was number ninety, I believe, and it is the book that convinced me that my traditional end-of-year top 10 list is probably going to have to be pushed to fifteen this year. It was effectively a random buy; we took my son to Barnes and Noble to spend some money on him for his birthday and it jumped off the shelf at me. I will own the sequel by the end of the weekend.

Children of Time is a post-apocalyptic, more or less post-human novel set in two places: a green planet far from Earth and an ancient, decaying generation ship containing what are, as far as the occupants know, the last few thousand members of the human race. It takes place over centuries if not actual millennia– the time scale is kept fuzzy, and the human characters’ ability to put themselves into cryogenic storage until the next event that causes them to need to wake up allows the timeline to be pushed well beyond the human lifespan. At the very beginning, a human scientist attempts to seed the green planet with primate life and with a nanovirus that will tailor their evolution over the years to produce sentient life on the level of human beings. Something goes terribly wrong, and the proto-primates are lost, but the nanovirus is not … and it settles into a species of spider instead. The book tells two parallel stories: the slow evolution of the spider species and their eventual rise to supremacy on their planet, a story that takes place over many generations and thus has many different “main” characters for each part of the book, most of whom are named “Portia,” basically for narrative convenience, and the remaining humans on a generation ship called the Gilgamesh, a cultural reference they have long since forgotten the meaning of. Eventually, the two discover each other’s existence, and while there is conflict, it doesn’t work out the way you think it will, and the final resolution was so simple and elegant that it blew me away.

It is– and this is the entire review, so pay attention– one of the most fantastically inventive things I have ever read. That should be clear just from the plot summary, right? You already know you need to read this book, and you should go get it right now and get started. I know, I know, I’m prone to hyperbole, I start the review off with hyperbole and I mention my tendency toward hyperbole in damn near every positive review I write. But this book is really something special, y’all. You owe it to yourself to read it.

#REVIEW: The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling

So:

1) Read yesterday’s post.

2) Understand that I have finished the book and remain just as enthusiastic about its strong points.

3) Also understand that the issue described in that post does not get better, ever, so calibrate your expectations as needed.

The end.

#REVIEW: The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon

This was one of those awesome accidents, a book that I had never heard of until I picked it up off a shelf at Barnes and Noble, mostly because it was a giant, intimidating (800+ pages) doorstop of a book with a cool cover and an intriguing title and, finding myself still thinking about it, ordered it a few days later. I wasn’t familiar with Samantha Shannon’s previous work, and the notion of a one-volume epic fantasy sounded like a nice change of pace even if that one-volume was, on its own, enormous.

The basic plot is, I’ll admit, a touch on the pedestrian side: an Ancient Evil is about to awaken, and once it does, well … it’s gonna be bad, in the way Ancient Evils typically are. I mean, you don’t get to be an Ancient Evil unless you’re planning on upsetting a few apple-carts once in a while, if you know what I mean. It’s in everyone’s best interest if the Ancient Evil is prevented from waking up. That’s just kind of a given.

Where The Priory of the Orange Tree shines is how it’s about that admittedly seen-it-before premise. First of all, the action is literally worldwide. Each of the four main characters is from a different culture and a different country, and many of them do not begin interacting with one another directly until the last third or so of the book. Second, the role of religion in the book is really interesting. The Nameless One (its actual name, which … whatever) was locked away a thousand years ago, and as it turns out the different cultures do not exactly agree on the precise order of events leading up to said locking away, and some of them have based their entire governing systems on a line of succession from someone who the other cultures don’t even see as legitimate. There is an Important Magic Sword; no one agrees on who made it or who wielded it, although there is general agreement that it was used to stab the Bad Guy, somewhat less effectively than one might have hoped. Various aspects of the actual truth are uncovered at various points throughout the story; most of the time, those truths end up pissing people off.

Oh, and most of the main characters are women and lots of them are gay.

And there are dragons. And spies, and a rather interesting magic system, and court intrigue on a couple of different continents, and a plague, and I spent about half the book wondering how in the hell everything was going to get wrapped up in a single volume and the other half wishing it didn’t, which I have to figure is a recommendation. I’d happily return to this world for more, to be honest, but if there isn’t ever a second volume it absolutely wraps itself up satisfyingly.

Thumbs up. I’ll be on the lookout for more Samantha Shannon in the future.