Gideon the Ninth, the first in the bestselling speculative fiction series, The Locked Tomb, written by Tamsyn Muir, is not the sort of book I would usually pick up. It’s described as weird, dark, science fiction horror, full of swords and skeletons and necromancy, which is not usually my cup of tea. However, I’d read a lot of hype about this book and was eventually drawn in by the tagline on the cover: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!”
This turns out to be misleading. There’s no sex, lesbian or otherwise, and almost no romance. Gideon, the point-of-view protagonist, isn’t a lesbian necromancer, although she is female and same-sex-attracted, as are several other characters. The word ‘lesbian’ doesn’t seem to exist in this world, possibly because the default in this world isn’t heterosexual relationships or male authority. Women can be soldiers, scholars, healers, powerful magicians and leaders, just as men can be, so that’s nice. The ‘in space’ part is also misleading — apart from a quick shuttle ride between planets and some passing references to battles going on outside their galaxy, there’s almost nothing in the book that is traditionally ‘science fiction’. So that’s also nice for me, because I don’t usually like science fiction.
There is a lot of Gothicism, though. Gideon is a maltreated teenage orphan with mysterious origins, brought up by the House of the Ninth, an ancient death cult on a planet in the furthest reaches of their galaxy. Gideon spends her time reading dirty magazines, hitting things with her sword, and trying to escape the planet so she can join their Emperor’s army. The only other person her age is Harrow, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, a skilled necromancer whose speciality is making skeletons move about. Harrow hates Gideon almost as much as Gideon hates her and they both seem utterly miserable. But when their Emperor summons Harrow and all the other House heirs to his First House, in order to appoint his next eternal, all powerful assistants, Harrow and Gideon are forced to work together, to travel across the galaxy to the First House and solve the Emperor’s mysterious challenges.
The book gets off to a slow start, but once Gideon and Harrow reach the decaying palace of the First House, I was completely engrossed in the story. I liked the atmospheric descriptions of the palace, with its crumbling terraces and overgrown conservatories and rotting rooms, staffed by an army of animated skeletons and ruled by three very odd priests. The House necromancers, each with their own rapier-wielding cavalier, aren’t given any guidance about what they actually need to do to become immortal Lyctors (‘I am certain the way will become clear to you without any input from us,’ says the main priest cheerfully), so there’s a lot of mystery and intrigue as clever Harrow and brave, reckless Gideon explore the palace to identify and solve all the puzzles. It becomes even more exciting when they realise a serial killer and/or malevolent supernatural force seems to be killing off the House necromancers and cavaliers, one by one, and they understand how deadly their tasks have become.
I found this book very intellectually challenging, I must say. Simply keeping track of the characters was difficult. They have names like ‘Palamedes Sextus, Heir to the House of the Sixth, Master Warden of the Library’, who is variously referred to as ‘Palamedes’, ‘Sextus’, ‘The Warden’, ‘The Sixth’ and ‘Master’, sometimes within the same scene. Fortunately, there was a list of characters at the front of the book, which I constantly referred to. I also needed to keep track of all the challenges, which involved various rooms, keys and secret symbols on doors, as well as try to figure out what was going on with the murders and disappearances. The plot twists are clever and surprising and usually make complete sense in hindsight, although if you’re the sort of reader who likes to figure out the answer to the mystery in advance, I should warn you that it is impossible to work this one out — we simply aren’t given enough relevant information and this world doesn’t follow our own rules. I did guess which characters were a bit dodgy, but my guesses as to what they were really doing were completely wrong.
This all makes the book sound very serious, but it’s actually extremely funny and imaginative and entertaining. This is because we see everything through the eyes of Gideon, an irreverent, impatient teenager who is quick to counteract any portentousness with rude jokes. In fact, her slangy, snarky voice, full of references to our own popular culture, is nothing like that of any of the other characters or even consistent with anything in their world. She has been brought up by ancient nuns on a distant planet, she doesn’t recognise the function of a bathtub or swimming pool, has never seen green vegetables or fish or the ocean, yet she describes something on her pillow as “like a chocolate in a fancy hotel”. How does she know about fancy hotels? Why does she make jokes using Tumblr memes? How did she even get access to pornographic magazines or aviator sunglasses on her planet? At first I thought Gideon must have dropped through some time-travelling portal from our world, but no, the author just does all this because she thinks it’s funny. It occasionally threw me out of the story, but mostly I shrugged and got on with enjoying the narrative twists and turns. Your tolerance for this sort of authorial self-indulgence may differ from mine.
Gideon’s anachronistic voice certainly seems to be the main reason this book has such mixed reactions to it, although there are some other flaws of pacing and world-building. It’s the author’s first novel and there were times when I thought the editing could have been more thorough. Still, it’s a hugely ambitious, entertaining, genre-mashing book that I think will appeal to readers who don’t usually read science fiction or horror – for example, Rivers of London fans. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, although I have been warned it’s even weirder and more challenging than this one.