Thursday 29 December 2022

Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

In the myriadic year of our lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

As a fast but often forgetful reader ('Read a lot, forget most of what you read', as Montaigne said*) a good fantasy series can quite easily earn a place on my bookshelves. Over the past 20 years I've amassed a core collection that I return to regularly to sink back into the world-building, reacquaint myself with the characters and appreciate the plot-twists anew: Megan Whalen-Turner's The Queen's Thief series, N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance and Broken Earth trilogies, Melina Marchetta's The Lumatere Chronicles, Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, Paulo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker trilogy, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Strange the Dreamer books, Maggie Stievater's myriad series (though her best book is undoubtedly the stand-alone The Scorpio Races). 

Gideon the Ninth - the first in Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb trilogy - wasn't on my official summer book stack*. I'd actually been picking the book up & putting it down for a while - it was Charles Stross's blurb on the cover that put me off: 'Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!'. Not the lesbian bit, not the necromancy bit, and not that gothic palace bit - the in space! bit. My husband dislikes "fantasy" because wave-your-hands-around-magic can constitute a plot solution: I dislike "science-fiction" because I find generally find the science tedious, anything with robots and AI generally boring and space opera specifically is one of my least favourite genres (see also Star Wars and Star Trek).

However. I kept seeing Gideon the Ninth popping up in people's recommendations and then Muir took out a couple of places on the Unity Book's sci-fi & fantasy best-sellers for 2022. I asked Twitter what I should do, and Twitter said buy it (which is, basically, why I am still on Twitter). And while the book is not perfect it's still a hell of a lot of fun. 

The book opens with a ornate cast of characters, divided into the Nine Houses of the Emperor: it reminded me of Alexandra Bracken's Lore which I read last year, which also opens with nine houses, based on Greek mythology. We are dropped straight into the story and the narrative  point of view of the lead character, as 18-year-old Gideon Nav embarks upon her latest attempt to escape her position as an indentured servant of the Ninth House and leave the planet to sign up for the Emperor's troops. We get a bit of context via her interactions with two retainers of the House, and then in glides the teenage heir to the House, "wearing black and sneering":

Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus had pretty much cornered the market on wearing black and sneering. It comprised 100 percent of her personality. Gideon marvelled that someone could live in the universe only seventeen years and yet wear black and sneer with such ancient self-assurance.

To describe the plot is to give the book away, so I won't do that. Three things I did notice though.

One is the number of genre tropes Muir pulls upon, and weaves together successfully. There is the central adversarial co-dependent relationship that provides much grist for colourful jibes, familiar from a legion of teenage rom-coms. There's a solid training montage with a grizzled and grudgingly respectful older mentor. There's a group of disparate characters thrown together in a mysterious environment and a subsequent contest of arms and wits, with the accompanying alliances, betrayals and crushes. There's a murder mystery, of the isolated country house full of guests/suspects variety. And there's a series of reveals at the end which are both satisfying and affecting (even if the horror / fight scenes surrounding them go on a bit - they'd translate well to screen but feel almost as if written for that). 

The second is that while it's kind of set in space, that's also not really a factor, and while there are zombies, they're not really presented as such. Two things of great relief to me.

The third is how often I thought of Taika Waititi's screenwriting tone while reading the book. Muir is also a New Zealander, and there are throw-away phrases (douche-bag, old as balls) that feel very New Zealand to me. There's a dead-pan tone throughout that could be described as sass, but to me feels more like the self-deprecating Kiwi humour we like to see in our cultural products:

As they pulled themselves into the shuttle, the door mechanism sliding down with a pleasingly final whunk, she leaned into Harrow: Harrow, who was dabbing her eyes with enormous gravity. The necromancer flinched outright.

"Do you want," Gideon whispered huskily, "my hanky."

"I want to watch you die"

Muir does a good job of showing rather than telling: the different kinds of necromancy, for example, are demonstrated through action rather than through loads of exposition. If you need to understand the backstory in order to enjoy the action, this probably isn't the book for you - having read all 475 pages, I still don't know exactly how the Houses emerged or what's really going on in the Emperor's affairs that he needs armies and champion for. And sometimes the story-telling is a bit too clever. Because of the show-don't-tell approach we meet the characters through their interactions with Gideon rather than in an orderly way (there's no run-down of the pairs from each House, in the style of, for example, The Hunger Games). Characters are often referred to by appearance rather than name (the terrible teens, the mayonnaise uncle) and even half-way through the book I was still repeatedly getting lost trying to reference them back to their correct Houses. In some ways this was appealing (contrast it to the pages and pages of heraldry in G.R.R. Martin, say) but it also got in the way of the reading a bit.

Having said this, I'm sufficiently intrigued to move on to the second book, and be glad I invested my summer time here.

*The quote ends "and be slow-witted" and I'm not so keen on that bit, unless you frame it as a kind of slowly percolating thought, in which case ka pai.

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