Welcome to Diversity in Sci-Fi! Today we are reviewing Gideon the Ninth, a space opera about a lesbian necromancer and her cavalier that incorporates fantasy, mystery, and horror elements. The perfect spooky book for the beginning of October!
Title/Author: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Summary: Gideon Nav is an indentured servant to the Ninth House, and she’s ready to make her escape. Unfortunately, she gets roped into becoming cavalier to Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of her House and a sharp-tongued necromancer who has been invited to the decaying First House. Dragging Gideon along with her, Harrow will join the necromancers of the other eight Houses in a fight to become Lyctor, an immortal servant to the Emperor God and the highest of honors.
Sub-Genre: Space Opera
Book Format: Paper
Length: 464 pages
Out of 25 characters, only two are explicitly portrayed as people of color – Jeannemary Chatur and Colum Asht. Gideon is white*, and Harrow's race is ambiguous, especially given that she is covered in face paint for the vast majority of the book. She has black hair and her naked skin is tinted grey; most likely she's white, but she could be fantasy East Asian. She should be on the cover of the second book in the series, so I suppose we'll see! Given the size of the cast, I was disappointed that it was so white -- although I did find the phrase “Why do you have such a baby uncle, one the color of mayonnaise?” hilarious. The “mayonnaise uncle” is Colum’s uncle, and he is a soul siphoner who quite literally drains Colum’s essence to enhance his own power. A white man leeching a POC of their life force was disturbing, but it is at least portrayed as a huge taboo, and Colum gets his comeuppance. I found his character intriguing, and I will say that Jeannemary was my favorite character after Gideon and Harrow.
*Edit: This blog post was posted on the date of Gideon the Ninth's release and was solely based on the physical descriptions of the characters in the Advance Reader Copy of the book. After this blog post was written, Tamsyn Muir wrote a Tumblr post elaborating on how she imagined the characters while she was writing them. Gideon and Harrow are both mixed Māori, and many of the supporting cast are people of color as well!
The cover’s tagline promises that "lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!" It delivers on every word of that promise. The relationship between Gideon and Harrow immediately captured me. I’ve rarely seen a true enemies-to-lovers relationship with lesbian characters, and Tamsyn Muir does it so well! You can feel the enmity and the years of history they share right from their first interaction with each other. It’s a slow-burn buildup to the realization of their romantic feelings for one another, but the journey is so worth it. Their relationship evolves naturally through the course of the book, and while there is ultimately little actual romance, you never doubt for a second that Gideon and Harrow are lesbians. There is also a very minor nonbinary character.
Blunt, deadpan Gideon and razor-sharp, viciously clever Harrow are the starring characters, but there are ten or so other female characters in the lineup with a range of personalities. They’re all fleshed out and fully realized characters, even the truly minor ones. Not one of them feels like a cardboard stereotype. I also love that both Gideon and Harrow are allowed to behave ugly and unladylike. It’s so refreshing to see flawed female characters with the kind of unapologetic brutality that is often reserved for male characters.
This is unequivocally my favorite book of 2019. I had the privilege to read an Advance Reader Copy, and I have not stopped thinking about it since. It’s been months. I can’t even pick a favorite thing, because it’s all so well-done. The characters are dynamic, the dry humor made me laugh out loud multiple times, and the worldbuilding is utterly engrossing. I was sucked in from the very first page. Of course it won’t be a book for every reader, but no book is. Expect a genre-defying blend of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and mystery; dense but intricate lore; and an occasionally winding narrative voice drenched in sarcasm. It also doesn’t info-dump the worldbuilding onto you, but instead immerses you in the complicated world and anticipates that you’ll figure it out as you go. I appreciated that, as gradually learning more about how this universe worked was part of the magic for me. I can’t recommend it enough and will be waiting on tenterhooks for the second book in the series.