Gideon the Ninth

My daughter read Gideon the Ninth a year or two ago, and she’s been talking about it ever since. A few weeks ago, she recommended that I read it, so I spent a credit on Audible and “read” the book over the last week. I just finished it this morning while mowing the lawn. I’m going to write it up here. Some spoilers, reader beware!

The book is set in a nine-planet solar system governed by a feudal aristocracy. Each numbered house runs its own planet, and owes allegiance to the absent Emperor of the First House. The houses use necromantic magic to control their populations, conquer other planets, and duel among themselves. The protagonist, Gideon Nav, is an indentured servant of the Ninth House, which is teetering on the brink of population collapse. She spends her time scheming to escape and join the military, but the ruler of the house, Harrowhark, manages to block her.

The pair, who hate each other, are called to the First House planet for a huis clos contest among the houses. Each House’s main necromancer, guarded by their personal bodyguard or Cavalier, must discover how to ascend to a post-human state as a Lictor to serve as a super-general in the Emperor’s wars, absent any guidance from the staff. Cut off from the other planets, the necromancers and their cavaliers use clues, force of arms and magic to discover what there is to do. As the contestants turn up dead, the story shifts from an aristocratic social battle to a murder mystery.

There were a lot of things I liked about the book. The world-building is done well enough that I was able to follow along pretty reasonably through a pretty complex, bizarre universe. The puzzles aren’t soluble without a lot of out-of-story context, so I could kind of let that part of my mystery-reading mind go dormant. Outside of the two main characters, the other 15 competitors are somewhat flat representatives of their House’s distinctive culture and magical style: the Second House are imperious and bureaucratic, the Fourth are impetuous risk-takers. I don’t think it’s possible to do this kind of book any other way, though.

The obvious comparison here is with The Hunger Games series. An unjust autocracy, N many young people brought together and isolated, social friction, and a life-and-death competition. If there weren’t some serious differences, this would feel like a direct knockoff.

But the differences are serious. First is the gothic Halloweeny setting; skulls and blood and zombies and soul-siphoning and a dozen other weird aspects. Gideon and Harrow’s house, guardians of something called the Locked Tomb, refuse to be seen in public in black robes with death’s-head makeup on.

More interesting is the character of Gideon herself. She’s a wise-cracking smart aleck, furious at being dragged to this dead planet to serve a House she hates, and her first-person narrative comes across as a kind of space-goth Holden Caulfield. But she’s under a vow of silence, so although the reader hears her arch commentary on the hypocritical or downright evil nobles around her, the other characters just think of her as a spooky goon with a sword, not much different than the animated skeletons that serve them food and clean their rooms.

Better still, she’s a teenager, and her romantic feelings towards other people in the First House vary wildly. She’s buffeted by flirting from both sexes, and it’s tough to tell from the story whether she’s being played or being true to herself.

The audio presentation is great. Moira Quirk, the reader, breathes a lot of life into Gideon’s foul-mouthed descriptions and asides. She also provides a wide variety of voices for the many different characters, which makes the dialogue very easy to follow. It’s a real treat to listen to.

There are a lot of things I don’t like about the book. It’s a lightly-veiled slave society, with animated skeletons playing the dehumanized role of expendable mindless workers. The clearly unjust military government is only lightly criticized, although with our protagonist deeply embedded in it, that might be just part of her being unable to step out of her own perspective. There are a few questions that go unanswered (Where does Gideon get her pornography? Who are the Empire fighting against? Is this our Solar system?) although most of the dangling threads are wrapped up at the end. The hardest part of the read is that the final battle sequence is almost interminable, and the emotional stakes are low.

I like the book overall, though, and I’ll take a shot at the sequels. It was great connecting with a book that means a lot to my daughter, too.

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