Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

In Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, orphaned, broadsword-wielding Gideon Nav makes a bid for freedom from a life of servitude on the claustrophobic planet of the Ninth House, but the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer and bone manipulation prodigy, thwarts Gideon’s attempt at escape, demanding the swordswoman’s help in exchange for her freedom. The Emperor has summoned the heirs of all the houses to the planet of the First House to participate in a deadly competition to gain immortality and sit at his right hand. Harrowhark cannot win without Gideon, but it turns out that Gideon also cannot survive without Harrowhark.

The narrative of Gideon the Ninth follows Gideon Nav’s foray into pretending to work with Harrowhark Nonagesimus, her lifelong enemy and tormentor, for a chance at freedom. But upon their arrival at the First House, the fabled home of the Emperor himself to which he may never return, they receive no explanation and only one rule for the trial set before them. Exploration and puzzle-solving ensue as the various heirs and their cavaliers execute different strategies to unlock the secrets of the ten-thousand year old, crumbling palace, stumbling across futuristic technology and ancient rituals alike.

Between snarky remarks and witty ripostes, Gideon and Harrowhark begin to learn more about each other and how to function as a team, even as the trial turns deadlier and deadlier. They begin the story as hated enemies and remain that way for a long time, until they catch themselves saving each other’s lives. As contestants fall around them left and right at the hands of a mysterious murderer, secrets long-kept start to surface, drawing them together.

The moment in Gideon the Ninth that sticks out to me the most happened when members of one of the houses had conned a coveted key from a character Gideon really (really) likes. It was dueling time, and though the smart thing to do was to stay out of the rising tensions between the houses, Gideon badly wanted to fight for that key. When Harrowhark announced that the Ninth House would represent the Sixth House in the match, some of the combatants got snippy about the move. Harrowhark simply said, “Death first to vultures and scavengers.” First, this moment represents Harrowhark at last caring about Gideon’s desires enough to allow her something she wanted, regardless of whether Harrowhark disagreed. Second, this also shows a tiny, tiny sliver of the way Harrowhark felt about the other houses’ taking advantage of an invalid; proof that she hid a fragment of honor beneath those layers of arrogance. This line also highlights the sudden moments of weighty syntax sprinkled within witty comments and sharp retorts throughout the narrative. Beyond just a delightful emphasis on the necromantic vibe in such short supply within the fantasy genre, brilliantly lively characters, and an even mix of action, exploration, and fighting, readers will enjoy the speedy and clever wording that had me laughing out loud.

As the first installment in The Locked Tomb series, Gideon the Ninth already has me hooked. I have to read the next books to solve the mysteries of Gideon’s past and her future – who and where did she come from? how will she continue in the state she’s left in at the end of the book? I rarely spend large swathes of time on reading these days, but as the book picked up in pace, I wound up reading the entire last half in one sitting. My only issue was the uniquely bad feeling I get when reading about enemies to lovers, as I find the unlikelihood of forgiveness for years of oppression and torment difficult to overcome in my suspense of disbelief. However, I love so, so much of the rest and I recognize that this hangup may only be mine, so I would recommend Gideon the Ninth to any readers who love the necromancy aesthetic, who are looking for a lesbian slow-burn, and who appreciate, as I did, a masculine-coded woman character.

My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.23 stars


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Book Review: The Death of the Necromancer

The Death of the Necromancer Synopsis

Nicholas Valiarde is a passionate, embittered nobleman with an enigmatic past. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, he is consoled only by thoughts of the beautiful, dangerous Madeline. He is also the greatest thief in all of Ile-Rien… On the gas light streets of the city, he assumes the guise of a master criminal, stealing jewels from wealthy nobles to finance his quest for vengeance the murder of Count Montesq. Montesq orchestrated the wrongful execution of Nicholas’s beloved godfather on false charges of necromancy–the art of divination through communion with spirits of the dead–a practice long outlawed in the kingdom of Ile-Rein.

But now Nicholas’s murderous mission is being interrupted by a series of eerie, unexplainable, even fatal events. Someone with tremendous magical powers is opposing him. Children vanish, corpses assume the visage of real people, mortal spells are cast, and traces of necromantic power that hasn’t been used for centuries are found. And when a spiritualist unwittingly leads Nicholas to a decrepit mansion, the monstrous nature of his peril finally emerges in harrowing detail. Nicholas and his compatriots must destroy an ancient and awesome evil. Even the help of Ile-Rien’s greatest sorcerer may not be enough, for Nicholas faces a woefully mismatched battle–and unthinkable horrors await the loser.

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s Website)

My Thoughts

Once again, I unwittingly picked up a sequel at the library, possibly because nowhere does the cover of Martha Wells’s The Death of the Necromancer indicate Ile-Rien #2, possibly because my library branch simply doesn’t carry the first in series installments. (Before proceeding to read The Death of the Necromancer, I started Black Heart, the third in Holly Black’s The Curse Workers series and had to put it down on realizing my mistake. Possibly, I myself am cursed.)

However! While the narrative makes what I assume are some allusions to the previous book, they’re explained well enough that I didn’t feel lost without Ile-Rien #1. If you don’t want to check out The Element of Fire before reading this one, you really don’t have to.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

High jinks rule the day throughout The Death of the Necromancer. The narrative comes packed with all kinds of sticky situations, clever escapes, “high-speed” horse cart chases, disguises, traps, schemes, and every aspect Victorian-era criminal life has to offer, plus necromancy. The characters operate on a morally ambiguous level, skirting the edges of ethics without resorting to unwarranted cruelty. (I would’ve accepted something grittier, but it was nice.)

Characters

The ragtag group of Nicholas Valiarde’s followers reminded me very much of the Dregs from Six of Crows, one of my favorite books. I’m sure this has to do more with tropes than anything else, but they were character tropes that I already know I enjoy–the scheming, clever leader in Nicholas, the spitfire master of disguise in Madeleine, the fallen nobleman in Reynard, the surly bodyguard in Crack, etc.

Madeleine herself got not only just as much development as Nicholas but also point-of-view scenes throughout The Death of the Necromancer, convincing me that she functions as a co-main character. On top of that, the plot resolution(s) literally couldn’t have happened without her. 10/10 lady lead character.

There also appeared Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, who look like Detective Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, but only if you squint. When their names turned up toward the beginning of the narrative, I never expected them to become integral to the story but what fun when they did. Also, Gay Undertones for Days.

Motifs

The apparent main plot of The Death of the Necromancer cleverly fades back into a sub-plot as the narrative progresses, honing in on a comparison of Nicholas’s mindset in his own scheme of revenge compared to that of the main villain. Wells also often encourages the reader to empathize with Nicholas, then reminds us how the other characters see him as someone capable of ruthlessness, how the truth of who he is probably lands somewhere between the two perspectives.

Romance. I’m an absolute sucker for a pre-established relationship. Nicholas and Madeleine had something going on before the beginning of the narrative, with their intimate understanding of each other, their muted pining and worry when apart, their silly attempts at stoicism toward one another. They spent the whole time being partners. In crime. Working together as a team. I ate that right up.

Ending

The final confrontation between our characters and the Big Bad had a lot more running around than seemed reasonable, but the final revelation of the villain and his clash with the heroes did not disappoint. The denouement of The Death of the Necromancer took its time with wrapping up, making sure to tie up any loose ends using elements sensibly pulled from the plot. It also allowed Nicholas, despite his status as some kind of hero-criminal as far as the crown was concerned, to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes one last time, staying true to his clever nature.

What I Disliked

I liked The Death of the Necromancer, but it took me approximately an entire month to read it. (Likely incurring a fee at the library because guess who didn’t bother to renew?) Though the narrative featured many of the things I like–a ragtag bunch of morally neutral criminals, an intelligent mastermind leader, necromancy, a reasonable romantic element, and a realistic heroine–my main complaint comes of the pacing. Much as I said in my review of Sabriel, the somewhat older-fashioned narrative style just felt less punchy and more draggy.

The narrative also suffers some from too many similar names. A number of them start with an R or end in “-ard(e)” so that even up until the end, when I’d become familiar enough with the characters to tell them apart, I still had to stop and orient myself when one of these names reappeared on the page.

Recommendations

I’d absolutely recommend The Death of the Necromancer to fans of Sabriel for the many elements shared between the two, as well as to fans of Six of Crows for the Victorian-era heist aspect. Also for readers who enjoy a more subtle romance and plot integral heroines.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads raiting: 4.07 stars


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