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Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

gideon the ninthGideon the Ninth
Tamsyn Muir

Tor.com, 2019
★★☆☆☆

Oh, boy. Okay. So why don’t I start by talking about the few things I liked about this book before I go off on a spiel about all the things I deeply disliked.

The Good:

→ The ending kind of saves the day. It’s stellar and harrowing and ties everything together nicely (though even that is bogged down by clunky pacing, as it’s dragged down by an unnecessarily drawn out fight scene). It’s just. It’s clever. Everything fits together nicely. It’s very brutal and it’s intriguing and it’s unexpected and twisty. And it’s just plain cool.

→ The characters. There’s a huge cast of characters in this book, and yet every single one of them manages to be memorable. I had no trouble keeping track of them all because they were so distinct, which is an astonishing feat, to be honest! I also found myself growing attached to most of them. I loved Gideon’s irreverent inner monologue, and her interactions with Harrow, who is such a fascinating character in her own right (particularly the more you learn about her) just hit the spot!

→ The humor. This book doesn’t take itself seriously at all, obviously. The humor has probably been its major selling point; when people describe this book as weird, I think what they want to say is…it’s a little ridiculous, to be honest. It’s so odd, tonally; you’ve got necromancy and murder mystery couched in this book that not only doesn’t take itself seriously but doesn’t want the reader to take it seriously, and yet…it works? This book leans on a very particular absurdist, black comedy aesthetic but it just fits really, really well. I mean, it is indeed deeply weird to have characters in a fantasy/sci-fi setting speaking in modern slang, but it’s also deeply refreshing and makes everything so much more relatable.

The Bad:

→ The pacing. The. Goddamn. Pacing. I struggled with this book so much because most of the time, I was bored out of my mind. I can’t tell you how many times I had to talk myself out of DNFing. There were random sections of the book that got interesting and absolutely flew by, and I would think, hey, finally, the story is picking up! But then it would just slow down again. The plot is bogged down by so many things that it simply does not need to be bogged down by; it could easily have been a hundred pages shorter and absolutely nothing would have been lost. The central mystery takes so damn long to get started, and then the characters just sort of…wander around and wait for things to happen.

→ This isn’t a Gothic novel, but it’s trying to be one. I’ve never actually read Gormenghast, but I’ve read of it, and I get the sense that this book – with its crumbling, Gothic palace – was supposed to be paying some kind of homage to Gormenghast and Gothic novels in general. But Gothic novels are also slow and meandering and dedicated more to The Aesthetic than to actually furthering the plot in a speedy manner. This book wanders and goes down strange routes and walks around in circles all in an effort to create a Gothic atmosphere that ultimately does not materialize.

→ The worldbuilding is practically nonexistent. I know there’s Nine Houses that serve the emperor and they have necromantic abilities, but that’s pretty much all I know. I have no sense of what sort of technological level these folks are operating at. I don’t know how these houses function. I don’t know who they’re fighting. I don’t know how they live or what they eat or wear or how they interact with each other or where they even live. This book is so insular, focusing simply on the murder mystery that emerges halfway through the book without bothering to provide any contextual details. Not only does this make things confusing, it means that events fail to resonate. I had absolutely zero sense of this society’s values, and so things that were meant to be hard-hitting were just…blah, because I had no idea what impact they were supposed to have.

→ The magic system is confusing as hell. I didn’t just need a glossary to follow this, I needed an introductory textbook and a few supplemental texts. Jargon is tossed left and right with little to no explanation, and eventually my eyes ended up glazing over it all because it made absolutely zero sense to me. And it’s a shame because I can tell it’s meant to be such a cool magic system! There’s necromantic specialties and theorems and there’s different kinds of energies and it’s so fascinating, especially as the stellar ending proves, but none of it ever really comes together because nothing is ever properly explained. And I know the author knows exactly how everything works, because of how complex it all is, but for some reason nothing is ever explained! If you’re that averse to info-dumping, then put in a glossary!

→ Speaking of worldbuilding and confusion, I don’t know if this was just me not reading properly, but there was something about the writing that had me struggling to picture the way things looked. Not with people, I actually think the descriptions of characters were spot on, but with literally anything else. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about what this haunted Gothic palace looks like. Literally nothing. Everything felt hazy and abstract, which just added to my confusion and feeling of being utterly unmoored.

Overall:

I feel so…bereft. This could have been a magnificent book, but it was really just a messy disappointment. I get being so dedicated to the aesthetic that you kind of let everything else flounder by the wayside. But. You can’t be confusing and boring; that’s just a deeply unfortunate combo. In short: extremely cool ideas and fun aesthetic, terribly botched execution.

Despite this, however, I am…so intrigued by the ending and the questions it brought up that I will almost definitely be picking up the sequel. But I also think that perhaps most of the issues I had here won’t follow to the second book. My confusion will be somewhat limited, because I’ll already have some understanding of the world, and because the plot (hopefully) won’t involve people wandering around an old house but seems to be hinting at war and political intrigue and even a bit of cosmic horror, there’s a good chance I won’t be bored. I’m just…too fascinated by the potential of this world to truly let go, which, in the end, is a testament to the author’s imagination.

(Also, this is 2.75 stars. But who’s counting.)

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