Tamsyn Muir’s 2019 Gideon the Ninth is the first volume in a space opera series that may be as yet unnamed (a sequel, Harrow the Ninth, will be out in 2020).
Gideon Nav, of poorly documented parentage, has been indentured to the Ninth House since she was an infant.
The Ninth House is known by other names: the Keepers of the Locked Tomb, House of the Sewn Tongue, and the Black Vestals, for example. Nowhere are the houses of necromancy given any names that would suggest the they are fun places to live. No, they are not fun. Gideon has been scheming escape ever since she was old enough to form the thought of leaving. None of her efforts have succeeded … yet. Why let a 100% failure rate keep her from trying?
As the story begins, Gideon is preparing another escape attempt, one that will surely succeed!
Gideon does get a ticket off planet, but it’s not at all what she wanted. She will be accompanying her bitterest enemy, Harrowhawk Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House1, as Harrowhawk’s designated cavalier. Harrowhawk isn’t pleased with this arrangement, but as her previous cavalier fled in terror when he learned Harrowhawk’s destination, and since the Ninth House is desperately short on young warriors, Harrowhawk doesn’t really have a choice.
Ten thousand years ago, the ageless Emperor defeated death itself and created eight equally ageless Lyctors. Ageless but not invulnerable. Over millennia the number of Lyctors has dwindled. The Emperor is reluctant to recruit replacements, but needs must. Each of the eight houses has been ordered to supply one necromancer and one cavalier, who will try to master the secret techniques that transform commonplace necromancers into Lyctors.
The functionary who greets them gives the candidates and their guards a single rule (never open a locked door unless you have permission), then turns them loose in a world that is one enormous palace tomb. A world with lots of room for sixteen more corpses.
As any fan of British country house mysteries could tell Gideon, one cannot house a disparate collection of aristocrats and flunkies without expecting the occasional sudden death. Just because the House of the First is largely abandoned by the living does not mean that it is not inhabited. That which calls the House of the First home is in no way friendly. The number of candidates and guards dwindles as unlucky candidates discover just how many ways there are to die in the House of the First.
This is a futuristic world2 based on necromancy. The Ninth House might be infamous for its relationship with death, but everyone who is anyone uses necromantic magic. Or is used in necromantic magic. Don’t count on death necessarily ending one’s career.
It’s also, and I am sure this comes as a complete surprise given the setting (necromancy, eternal emperor)3, a crapsack universe without much in the way of hope or joy. At least none of this is presented as good or right. It’s just how things are in this setting. The Emperor seems to think that he had good reasons to do what he did — but of course he would.
The novel also features an intriguing mix of elements, some diverting, some repellent. The decaying palace is beautiful in a dilapidated way, the plot twists are twisty and surprising, the characters are well-drawn, if not at all what they pretend to be. The book is mostly told from Gideon’s perspective, and she has a vulgarly beguiling voice. There’s love. To borrow a phrase, you cannot spell necromancer without romance. Gideon isn’t the only character who spends the book distracted by infatuation4. A book starring coldly professional revenant wranglers would have played out very differently.
The book is a bit like a gift box of upscale candies that is infested with angry kraits. Candy yum, until one is bitten on the eyeball.
If you’ve played Warhammer 40K and thought “this is way spikey and nihilistic, but it doesn’t have anywhere near enough horny, foul-mouthed lesbians,” I have the book for you.
1: Harrowhawk has been de facto ruler of the Ninth House ever since her parents killed themselves. Their suicides have never been publicly announced. Harrowhawk’s necromantic talents allow her to rule through her parents’ re-animated corpses.
2: This may take place in space, but there are no ray-guns. Cavaliers rely on good old swords.
3: Sigh. Who do I have to kill and raise in a dread rite to get my hands on an SFF novel with even a hint of democratic institutions?
4: I’m pretty sure this is both a minority opinion and a huge spoiler so I will rot13:
[rot13 for spoiler]
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