Welcome to your new obsession, darklings.
Gideon Nav has lived in servitude to the Ninth House her whole life. Which has been a lousy one, as far as lives go. The Ninth House is a dark, dusty place filled with skeleton servants and reanimated corpses. Not exactly a great place for children to grow up, what with the death, and skeleton face paint, and all.
And then there’s Gideon’s playmate-slash-nemesis, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and a bone witch to boot. Harrow has enjoyed making Gideon’s life miserable every chance she gets, usually through blood magic. And when you have a necromancer for a playmate, who needs enemies?
So at the start of the book, Gideon has had enough of being Harrow’s punching blood-bag, and is taking her toys (dirty magazines) and leaving the sandbox (Ninth House planet). But instead of arriving to board her escape ship, Gideon finds Harrow is there to foil her plans. Of course she is. But Harrow has a proposition for Gideon, because annoyingly, she actually needs her. Because Gideon is not just a useful creature to torment – she’s a hella-skilled swordswoman.
Of course, Harrow doesn’t want to have to ask Gideon for help. But the Emperor of the Houses is holding a competition for all the heirs of his houses – in which the winner gets a little thing called “immortality” – and Harrow can’t do it without her cavalier. She’s magicked up to the eyeballs, sure, but when it comes to making with the stabby-stabby, she’s useless. And two dark, demented heads are always better than one.
So Harrow makes Gideon an offer: Help her beat the other heirs and obtain immortality by the Emperor’s side, and then she’ll grant Gideon the freedom to take her dirty magazines and frack off to wherever her little black heart desires.
A chance to travel away from the Ninth House and hit strangers with swords? Gideon agrees, and as quick as you can say, “Bob’s your skeleton uncle,” they’re off to the First House.
When they arrive, they park their shuttle among the shuttles of the other houses, and are greeted by a jolly little priest named Teacher, keeper of the First House and servant to the Necrolord Highest. He gives everyone their room assignments, as though this is a summer camp for Hot Topic shoppers and not a battle of wits and strength for eternal life.
The First House itself is a giant decaying castle, a once-impressive structure now falling to ruin, with crumbling towers, and dying plant life attempting to strangle what little beauty is left from the building . And the inside is like a goth Howard Johnson, complete with atrium and empty pool, and its halls and rooms are full of plaster chunks, peeling paint, and cracking glass.
As mentioned, joining Gideon and Harrow in competition are the heirs of the other houses, including the young twins of the Third House and the sickly duchess of the Seventh House. When everyone has arrived and made it inside, they are given their instructions. Each house cavalier is given an iron ring, and the Teacher tells everyone that the solution to the contest is in the house, and their only instruction is that they never open a locked door without permission. That’s it.
Er, that’s it for game instructions that is. Harrow also instructs Gideon that she is not to speak to anybody. (“To clarify, anybody is a word that refers to any person alive or dead.”) So as Harrow disappears into the house, Gideon wanders around and silently sizes up the competition, which includes the swoonworthy, sickly duchess, Lady Dulcinea Septimus.
Shall I tell you about more of the characters in the spooky-ass space castle? You’ve heard about Gideon, of course, and Harrow (aka Necrogina George), and the Maulmart greeter who welcomed them, the Teacher, who is more like a giddy schoolboy, really. And then there is the heir and their cavalier from each house. (Pro tip: Tamsyn Muir has a pronunciation guide on her tumblr.)
Second House: The no-nonsense necromancer, Judith Deuteros, and Marta Dyas, her very regimental cavalier.
Third House: The twins, Coronabeth and Ianthe Tridentarius, shake things up a bit, as there should only be one heir, and one cavalier, but they were born at the same time, and rules are rules. Their cavalier, Naberius Tern, must answer to the whimsy of teenage girls, which makes him pretty cranky on the regs.
Fourth House: More surly teenagers in the form of necromancer Isaac Tettares and Jeannemary Chatur, his extremely skilled cavalier. (The way they taunt Magnus made me giggle really hard, in part because of the font size.)
Fifth House: Abigail Pent, a necromancer who is not quite as outgoing as her gregarious husband and cavalier, Magnus Quinn, who goes out of his way to be friendly to everyone.
Sixth House: Palamedes Sextus, a necromancer with a thing for the Seventh House duchess, and Camilla Hect, his badass warrior cavalier.
Seventh House: Dulcinea Septimus: the lovely duchess who seems to be wasting away from consumption, and her “uncomfortably buff” cavalier, Protesilaus Ebdoma, who draws on Gideon almost immediately after landing. For reasons.
The Eighth House: An unusual pair. Snotty Silas Octakiseron is the uncle to Colum Asht, his cavalier, despite being much younger. Silas makes it clear that he does NOT interact with shadow cultists, so Gideon won’t find any hospitality from them.
And let’s give a bony hand to the hardworking crew of animated skeletons. They make everything work smoothly, since no one else would lift a finger to help out.
Now: let the games begin.
While the first part of the book was revving somewhere around “Gothic sci-fi strangeness,” Muir then drops a cement Gargoyle on the gas pedal and the novel screeches off into full “hi-octane horror adventure.” It becomes The Westing Game for goths, if Turtle Wexler grew up to be a badass lesbian swordswoman, and the building was decorated like Skeletor’s wet dream, and everything and everyone wants to kill you.
As the heirs hunt for clues to the secrets of the castle, and discover all kinds of WTF-ery behind unlocked doors, someone – or something – is hunting them, and it’s going to get gooey. In a whirlwind of supernatural terrors and spirited sarcasm, Gideon the Ninth twists its way through the Emperor’s competition to an explosive, action-packed ending that leaves you wanting more of its ectoplasm-soaked pages.
Part of the magic of Gideon the Ninth is that it shouldn’t work this well as a novel, but it does. On paper, animated skeletons, haunted houses, and this much sword play normally work better in screen format or comics. But the greatest trick that devil Muir has pulled is convincing the world that Gideon exists. Gideon Nav is a sarcastic swordswoman with a heart of bone, whose complex feelings and loyalties are the essence of the novel. Her relationship with Harrow is like a goth version of The Remains of the Day. And throughout the book, every bone, every speck of blood, is so vividly realized, it’s like you’re there. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll even cry. (I’m not crying, I’ve just got a bit of bone chip in my eye.)
Gideon has an admirable bad attitude and a dirty vocabulary. She’s always down to necro-clown and her fight scenes are magnificent! Those might be my favorite parts, aside from a line about potatoes I say in my head now whenever someone mentions them. (Seriously, this book is so strange.) I loved the way she threw herself into her battles and the unusual challenges that came her way, dispensing of them with her sword and her ‘yippee kayak, mother buckets’ attitude. And the ending is so epic! I’d tell you why, but then I’d have to kill you. (Tor would like me to mention that no, I would not.)
I’m not going to lie, I’m a little in love with this book. What a freaking great time I had reading it! I read an advance copy in December, and have read it five more times since then. I also posted photos of myself on the Internet with my face painted like Gideon, and have recommended it to roughly eleventy million people. I can’t help it, it is THAT fantastic. It’s equal parts funny, gross, exciting, and heartfelt. (It’s also entirely possible that Muir filled the book with enchantment spells, and whoever reads it must do her bidding or read it over and over until the sun burns out. Whatevs, that’s cool.)
Yes, thank darkness, there are going to be more books in the series. (Muir has suggested calling her next one Wet Hot Necrogoth Summer.) Gideon the Ninth wraps up by resolving the competition nicely, while swinging open the wrought-iron doors to another spooky adventure. I could not be more excited if I swallowed a cat and broke out in kittens!
And it’s worth mentioning that the physical copies of Gideon the Ninth are gorgeous, and the pages are edged in black, which you can have custom-detailed with the ashes of your enemies. (No, you absolutely cannot, but it sounded good.)
So get your grease paint ready, because you (and everyone else) will want to be Gideon for Halloween. And believe the hype: Gideon the Ninth is a gothic-ass grotesquerie rolled in bone char and broken glass that will give your hypothalamus a hickey.
Liberty Hardy is a Book Riot senior contributing editor, co-host of All the Books, a Book of the Month judge, and a ravenous reader. She resides in Maine with her cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon. You can see pictures of her cats and her books on Instagram @franzencomesalive.