The nice thing about being a little late to the game is that often the books I love already have sequels or the authors have otherwise published other work, so I can linger a little longer in the world or language than I would have if I had read them when the ink was still drying.
That’s the case with Gideon the Ninth—sort of. I blew through Gideon and leapt almost immediately into its sequel, Harrow the Ninth—only to find there will be a third book in the Locked Tomb Trilogy that I have to wait for like some kind of loser. But while I’m waiting (current estimate: 2022!) let me wax poetic, and occasionally critical, at the first two books in Tamsyn Muir’s wickedly delightful trilogy.
In Gideon the Ninth, the titular Gideon is swept up in a sort of Hunger Games-ish competition to see which necromancer representing their respective noble house will win the prize to serve the Emperor directly. Gideon isn’t a necromancer—the only bones she deals with are those she breaks as the cavalier (essentially, the bodyguard and muscle) to Harrow, the Ninth House’s heir and Gideon’s lifelong tormenter. As Gideon and Harrow compete alongside and against seven other necromancers and their respective cavaliers, they have to work together not only to win, but to figure out who or what keeps killing contestants. Winning soon seems secondary to staying alive.
From the very first page, in which Gideon is plotting her escape from the exceptionally bleak halls of the Ninth House, I was sold on this character and this world. In a backdrop comprised, it seems, exclusively of grays and browns and blacks and bone white, Gideon’s biting commentary kept the backdrop of necromancy surprisingly lighthearted. Even when her carefully laid plans are immediately dashed, her resilience and the deft banter with Harrow made the pages fly by. I compared the competition to Hunger Games, but the similarities end at the houses and their corresponding personalities, and the dangerous puzzles and high body count, allowing Gideon the Ninth to feel as refreshing as a book about death cults and necromancy can possibly be.
In Harrow the Ninth, things get a bit darker and less fun as the characters who survived Gideon deal with the fallout of the previous book and take stock of the greater danger awaiting them. I’m trying to avoid spoilers here and it’s hard, but basically, both the climactic events of Gideon and what happened between the end of Gideon to the beginning of Harrow essentially broke Harrow, which Muir represents by using a second-person POV to tell the story. If you’ve read The Fifth Season, it’s a lot like that (and if you haven’t read The Fifth Season, get on it). Harrow, now joined with God (no questions, please), and a handful of other super-powerful necromancers have to figure out how to stop a revenant of a planet from destroying the universe. The second-person POV is undercut with the more familiar third-person that takes place back in the events of Gideon but from Harrow’s point of view, and the two flit back and forth in time.
The overall effect is, frankly, confusing, which I think was partially by design, but I’m not sure Muir intended for Harrow to be as confusing as I found it. Whereas I tore through Gideon like it would save my life, I had to take Harrow much slower and there are still some minor plot points I’m not confident I understood. Those two contrasting points of view took a long time to make sense with one another; it’s not until about 70% of the way through that the reveals start coming, but when they start, they come fast and heavy. I expected a different reading experience from Harrow than I had with Gideon, especially since there was never a secret about Harrow following a different character than Gideon did. I underestimated just how different, and how much I would miss Gideon‘s POV.
Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth are both effusively billed as a lesbian necromancer adventure, but the lesbianism is taken as a point of fact in the narrative. No one tries to hide their sexuality, but it’s also not a conflict or focal point of the story. The characters lust after who they lust after, and the characters just happen to be women, as do the people they lust after. I know a potential counterpoint to that matter-of-fact presentation of sexuality is that we shouldn’t hand-wave over the historical lack of non-cis-het characters in the stories we tell, and I agree with that. But it’s also nice, and aspirational, really, to have characters just being their bad selves and thinking nothing about their sexuality because it’s all cool.
I’ve written (okay, ranted) before about how I usually like some meat on the bones of my fiction, slight pun intended. It’s true that while Gideon is almost ridiculously fun and the writing is solid, that’s about it as far as the nutritional value goes, as my childhood librarian would say. Which isn’t all bad—you can have books that are just fun, even I can admit that. We can say the normalization of LGBTQ+ characters being themselves is substance enough for me to justify a reread or two or three.
So to review: Gideon the Ninth was the most fun I’ve had reading in a long time and it was gory and violent and funny and profane and I loved every page of it. Harrow the Ninth was harder to love but I can still appreciate it, especially if some of its more confusing mysteries are cleared up by the third book, Alecto the Ninth, whenever the publishing gods see fit to grant us it. (Until then, there’s a Spotify playlist to keep us warm.)