Here’s the pitch; it’s a sci-fantasy magi-tech murder mystery story with sword fights and a ripped up muscle lesbian who wears makeup to look like a skull and mirrored sunglasses to look like a skull wearing mirrored sunglasses. Then with that kind of approach you’re left grappling with the question, okay, but how does it pull that off?
And the answer is with bombast and aplomb, two words that I think wouldn’t rate for this book’s love of linguistic particulars.
The first and most significant thing that Gideon The Ninth needs you to meet – well, no, the first thing it needs you to meet is its protagonist who is introduced in one of the most efficient first paragraphs I’ve ever read that wasn’t cheating – but the next most significant thing is its world. The world of Gideon The Ninth is a vast, sprawling magical world, but the magic in question is necromancy. It’s not a world of fireballs and telepathy, but instead, a world where gristle and bone and tendons form the foundations of the fantastic behaviour. Wars are fought by drop ships deploying troops of meat to fight with swords, and however practical that is or is not is entirely an exercise left to other stories.
Something I like about this depiction of a world is its emptiness. It’s a necromantic galactic empire full of ancient traditions and millenia of infrastructural weight, but it’s also stretched out thin across that space, with a population so small that an entire planet can lose two hundred children in a single year and have it be effectively, an extinction event. While on the one hand, there’s this wonderful treatment of the empire as a corpse, there’s also a very material perspective on the world as a world of corpses. People care about bones and nails and the material resources of skeletons and undeath and souls and there’s a deep consideration for all the different ways in which understanding the dead is treated in magical worlds.
It’s a very clever, well-thought out universe, that by dint of using its thematic space like this, gets to blend together a creaky oldness and a desperate neediness, a respect for death and a clinging to life, all at once, told in the very methods of how people engage with the systems of the empire as a whole. It also means that this vast story gets to be about… like… twenty people.
Those people, then, are going to hold the story on their shoulders, and it is a good thing that Gideon the Ninth, our protagonist, has such amazing shoulders. I can just imagine people reading this book being mad at how she talks, the narrative language used to describe her, and her priorities, and how fantastically I don’t care that it bothers them.
Gideon is an angry young woman stuck in a rotten living environment on the edge of an empire with a friend group consisting of zero friends and one deeply hated enemy. The story starts with her attempting to escape and moves on to the next step of her concocting a new plan to escape that just so happens to involve her pretending to be that deeply hated enemy’s bodyguard and bestie as they’re both thrown into a version of that ‘mansion on a remote island’ mystery, except the island is also on a planet and the mansion is a dilapidated, forgotten ruin that’s been still for millenia.
Gunna level with you: Names in this one were hard for me up front. I appreciate that the book starts with a glossary of names, that’s great, but I also keenly felt how hard it was to flip back to that when I was reading on my phone. It’s a really interesting little material boundary on the way that ebooks and physical books differ, and who knows, I may wind up wanting a physical copy of this book. Lords knows I think it rules. I think the main characters rule. I think the way the plot is executed rules. I think the world rules. And maybe that’s a confluence of extremely specific factors, but I don’t know how to share that engagement without just listing things in the book, lines, quotes, character dynamics.
Everyone in this book is part of a wizard-and-retainer combo pair. A bunch of them are really hot. There’s multiple twists. There’s a point where a librarian headbutts someone. There’s a discussion of different kinds of fighting styles. Tradition gets dismantled. There’s a heartfelt confession of cosmic importance told in ritual circumstances that just happen to be very sexy. There’s even a moment when a character does something incredibly cool, incredibly metal, and incredibly stupid all at once and it saves the day and it sucks and it’s great all at once.
I love the voice of this book. Particularly, I love the way this voice betrays a dialect that is not America, nor is it Britain. It’s a linguistic framework that uses tumblr memes and Homestuck references and IRC repetition jokes (like those IRC repetition jokes), and there’s a point where someone says ‘nice job, dickhead‘ and chockas with ghosts and the hand in the lollies jar and all those things are things that sound, to me, in my head, with the voice of an author from New Zealand, similar to Australia, and dashed about with forums of the 90s and then Tumblr and Homestuck and more than anything else, a voice of an author from the internet, but the New Zealand part of the Internet.
There’s also a delight in demonstrating a particular breadth in language use. There are specific terms rare in their use but deployed for their extremely specific appropriateness here – I know, I had to look a bunch of them up. This is a voice that is not ashamed of how it sounds and it is proud of what it knows, and those things work together to create a voice that I want to fight for. I want to read more books like this. I know I write like old people (I know so keenly), and I know I’m ashamed in many ways of the ways the way I talk lacks legitimacy, and reading this book is like a sweet breath of proud living.
This book is not ashamed of being from where it is.
I wish I could be half as bold, half as perfect.
Thing is, I’m in this book.
Not really, not properly, not actually.
It’s the invisible space around where the author’s notes mention writing Animorphs fanfiction. In that gasp of air around that space, there I am. There I was. For a year or two, I was part of a friend group on the internet the #Animorphs channel supported by the Chee Database that featured Tamsyn Muir. In a way that’s impossible to communicate, that person I knew then was staggeringly important to me. Important in a way that’s hard to really grapple with, because I was also a child, and I haven’t those memories preserved anywhere. Seeing her name on the lips of my friends as they talked about a book that had come out that they loved was like perfumed ice. It’s there in how I read these pages, because I can hear a voice in my head, reading these lines, delivering these lines but they are memories of a voice that has long since passed into being a memory of memory.
I have no fantasy in my mind that I, in any way, influenced or encouraged her. I remember first coming into her orbit when she commented very kindly on my quite bad Animorphs fanfiction. I remembered writing fanfiction with her. I remember her talking about her plans to become a published author, her drive to do it. That was there, and I never doubted it.
I think about how in that space, there was at least a time and a place where I got to be part of encouraging amazing people – plural – to make great things. Even if I didn’t know I was doing it or how I was doing it. There was a time and a place where by accepting someone and listening to them and encouraging them, maybe I helped something good happen, years down the line. And if that space had been more hostile to creative art, especially women’s creative art, who knows how many great books have been knocked off-course by that same impetus by people being silly or cruel or selfish.
This is just a story, of course, a story I tell myself.
It probably isn’t true.
I imagine that Muir, who is a whole adult with a life and struggles and friends and support from all sorts of other directions, would have been just fine without us in our space. Another random group of internet weirdoes would have been there. The prudish boy who didn’t realise he was just out of a cult is maybe a blip in her memory.
Who’s to say? But the lesson I can carry out of this, with these strange, tangled feelings I have of a friendship of someone amazing that I let slip away because I was bad at being a friend, is that it’s always worth it to be kind, and always worth it to encourage people to make things.
This book rules and it rules that it exists and you should check it out if sword-wielding heavy metal album cover lesbian spacefaring necromancers interest you at all.