For ten thousand years the empire has endured—nine proud Houses sheltered under the aegis of the Necrolord Prime. But the ranks of the Emperor’s most trusted knights, the Lyctors, have thinned considerably after an age spent fighting in his name, and the King Undying requires new blood (literally) to fill out the fighting numbers of the First House. Nine House heirs are summoned with their sworn cavaliers, nine necromancers and nine swordsmen to vie for the ultimate honor: to become an immortal hand of the Emperor, bringing honor to their house for the next ten thousand years.
Bringing honor to her house is the furthest thing from the mind of Gideon Nav; point of fact, Gideon Nav couldn’t give less of a shit about honor for the Ninth House (sorry about the swearing, but if it bothers you here, well…). As a child growing up in the decrepit halls of the ossifying Ninth, Gideon dreamed of escaping off-world to enlist in the Emperor’s army, just her and her very heavy sword that she is very, very good at swinging at things. Unfortunately, Gideon’s childhood nemesis Harrowhark, heir of the Ninth House and powerful bone magician, has other plans—Harrow cannot meet the Emperor’s summons without a sworn cavalier in tow, and the Ninth is desperately short of candidates. She proposes a deal Gideon can’t refuse: a one-way ticket off planet if Gideon will render her one last service: play the role of devoted swordsman until Harrow can achieve Lyctorhood and ascend to the right hand of the Emperor.
Having struck up an extremely unenthusiastic partnership, Gideon and Harrow arrive at Canaan House, a crumbling gothic sprawl of a space manor, where they meet the seven other necromancer/cavalier pairs with whom they will be competing for the honor of becoming a Lyctor. The mansion is a puzzle box full of necromantic tricks and clues, but what starts as a Westing Game-style competition amongst heirs rapidly swerves into And Then There Were None territory (with more vivid dismemberment) as the Emperor’s trial becomes (un?)deadly.
Gideon the Ninth is a wackadoodle science fantasy that mixes horror, swordplay, creative profanity, space magicians, and sheer good fun. The novel lives or dies with Gideon: the spark and punch of Muir’s debut largely comes out of the tonal ping-pong between her baroque worldbuilding and the cheekily (but not incongruously) contemporary voice of her heroine. Muir catapults her reader into a fully formed universe of decaying empires and magical femurs, complete with heirs and courtesies, dueling handbooks, and a magic-as-science approach to raising the dead. And into this elaborate confection of skeletal handmaids and polished space filigree swaggers our main girl and her filthy mouth, all hands on her trusty longsword and her eyes locked on the nearest shortest skirt.
Gideon is terrifically funny and easy to root for, and her plain-speaking snark and crude asides peel the varnish off the coiffured world she inhabits. As Muir shows no mercy with the necromantic technobabble, Gideon’s brawn-over-brains befuddlement allows the reader an opportunity to catch a breath and figure out what the hell is going on. On the other hand, residing in Gideon’s head can be a detriment at times: her no-effs-given attitude extends to remembering the names of her fellow characters, which makes sorting out all seven heirs and their accompanying champions a touch baffling for the first third of the novel. This is that rare book in which you may frequently consult the dramatis personae at the front, if only to fully appreciate Muir’s facility for creating truly kickass fantasy names: Sister Lachrimorta; Jeannemary Chatur and Isaac Tettares (née the crappy teens, per Gideon); Dulcinea Septimus; Silas Octakiseron.
As the plot picks up speed, however, almost every member of the cast becomes well-defined, interesting, and treated with a sincerity that comes almost as a surprise in a book as proudly sarcastic as this one can be—something especially potently felt in the mutating, if always adversarial, relationship between Gideon and Harrow. And if almost every member of the supporting cast plays to type—the scholar, the fanatic, the soldier, the arrogant princess, the affable knight—it only adds to the fun of being trapped with them in a weirdo gothic space thriller, and such a terrible shame that the twists and turns of Muir’s plot prove so very, very dangerous for her characters. As perhaps expected from a book with a confetti of bones on the cover and the prefix “necro” attached liberally throughout, much of the action is fittingly gruesome and probably not for delicate constitutions.
Muir’s debut is smart, fun, and fresh, bursting with thrilling action and derring do, genuinely puzzling puzzles, lots of swears, heaps of yucky dead things, and a storm of skeletons. The wild tonal contrasts and kitchen-sink approach to both the genre and the prose (spot the buried Simpsons reference amid a scene of otherwise tense exposition) somehow works in symphonic harmony, thanks to an extraordinarily likable heroine supported by Muir’s whip-sharp voice and clockwork plotting. The end of the novel gestures toward larger interplanetary goings-on that will presumably materialize in planned sequels, good news for readers who will be eager to dive back into Muir’s madcap techno-necromantic world. Consider my bags packed for wherever Muir would like to take me next (though my stomach would perhaps appreciate slightly less detailed descriptions of cartilage on the next trip).