Disappointing and messy: Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

Well, I’m glad that’s over. It doesn’t happen too often that a book I am extremely excited for turns out to be this disappointing. Is it me? I mean, everybody on the internet seems to love this book, including lots of people whose opinion I trust. And “lesbian necromancers in space” sounds super cool. And that cover is amazeballs! So why was this book such a mess? I’m going to try and explain why it didn’t work for me but, honestly, I just wish I could understand why so many other people love this so much.

by Tamsyn Muir

Published by: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 448 pages
Series: The Locked Tomb #1
My rating: 5/10

First line: In the myriadic year o our Lord – the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! – Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

Gideon the Ninth is the most fun you’ll ever have with a skeleton.
The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.
Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.
Of course, some things are better left dead.

Where do I start… I supposed I’ll do it the same way Tamsyn Muir did: with the Ninth House and its current resident, swordswoman and frequent user of curse-words Gideon. We are introduced to Gideon and her home planet without being given any real information. Gideon is there, but she wants to get away because  everything sucks. Skeletons walk around and do chores, nuns pray to some god or whatever, and I still don’t really know what Gideon (or anyone else, for that matter) does all day. But things are bad so Gideon has divised a plan to escape – which is promptly foiled by her arch-enemy and only other teenager on the planet Harrowhark Nonagesimus. It’s difficult to learn anything useful about either the world or the characters in those few introductory chapters, but from what I gathered, Gideon hates Harrow with the heat of a thousand suns because Harrow has been torturing her psychologically since forever.

Then an invitation from the Emperor to the heirs of all Houses plus their cavaliers arrives. Cavaliers are something like bodyguarding, sword-fighting, sworn servants of the princes and princesses of the Nine Houses. Because reasons, Harrow takes Gideon on this trip to the First House because the challenge that awaits them there promises Lyctorhood – in essence, it makes you immortal and grants you great power and such. This is also not explained properly. But I guess the stakes don’t matter even if I’m supposed to root for these characters.

All of this is pretty boring. I know that’s not a great thing to say in a review, but the world-building is pretty much non-existant at this point, so all I did for the first chapters was try to find my footing, find something to hold on to, understand anything about this world. Alas, I didn’t. That may well be my own fault. Maybe I’m just too dumb to get it. But another book came to mind that throws readers into a similarly not-explained world. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee also doesn’t bother to explain anything in the first chapters, but the big difference is that in that book, things become clearer as you read along. You figure out the characteristics of the different factions in that story, you get to know the characters and learn to care for them. All of that was missing from Gideon the Ninth. The only thing I mildly cared about was Gideon because she seemed like a bad-ass with a foul mouth and I have a soft spot for that kind of character.

The plot starts around the 40% mark of this book. Considering that the first 40% were neither used for world-building nor introducing the many characters properly, I’m surprised I even got this far. Because let me tell you: there are quite a few characters and it’s more than tough keeping them apart. Everyone has a first and last name, some also have nicknames, sometimes they’re referred to only by their title and/or House – and none of them have much personality. When all the necromancers and cavaliers from the Houses get together to compete to become Lyctors, I had no idea in any given converesation who was talking. I know there were a couple of teenagers, one super amazing swordfighter, and the others are just a blurry mix of names and titles. It also has no real impact on the plot who is who. Even the glossary at the beginning didn’t help and I didn’t want to flip back and forth on every single page to figure out which House Camilla belonged to or whether the teenagers were from the Third of Fourth House. The only character who is fleshed out a little bit is Dulcinea (don’t ask me which House) because Gideon spends some time with her and we actually get to see who she is for a bit. Then the deaths start.

This was the point where I hoped I would finally get on the hype train and understand all the rave reviews about crazy twists and lesbian necramancers and such. And I admit, what followed had its moments. There were certain tasks that Harrow and Gideon had to perform pursuing Harrow’s goal of becoming immortal and saving her House, and during those chapters, I really was at the edge of my seat. They also showed a bit more of what the necromancers in this world can even do. I was excited to finally learn more, Harrow grew on me because she is just really good at what she does, and Gideon surprised me. She had started out as this unfeeling, even ruthless character. Turns out, everything she does is pretty meek and nice. Sure, she curses a lot and she doesn’t flinch away from a fight but her behaviour generally is always kind and full of empathy. I liked her more for it but I was pretty confused why she was shown in such a different light in the first chapters.

But the plot – even though it had finally kicked off – doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Is it the story of a competetion in a labyrinthine place where people have to perform ridiculous and dangerous tasks? Is it a murder mystery? The thing is, as a genre-mashup it could have really worked, but every other chapter felt like the author didn’t know herself where she was going. The competition, the secret rooms, the challenges, were just completely dropped from the plot after a while. And while the murders are certainly mysterious, this is also not the kind of story where anyone goes investigating. People just sit around, duel a bit for no sensible reason, and wait for the next murder to happen.

My theories as to why this book didn’t work for me but did for so many others is that its focus is more on aesthetics than content. The way Gideon and Harrow are described, their face-paint for example, would make an excellent look for a movie. But looks alone aren’t enough to make me like a book. It turns out I like the idea of this book more than the book itself. Maybe that’s why I’m so very disappointed – because the book promised me something (lesbian necromancers in space) and not only didn’t deliver but delivered something completely different which also could have been cool but was just badly executed. The lesbian aspect was there only in Gideon leering after every other woman and I had kind of hoped for a little romance. No such luck. Space doesn’t really feature either. We’re told they hop on a spacecraft to get to this other planet and each House has its own planet apparently, but the plot takes place in very gothic settings that don’t work at all with the idea of an spacefaring people. If they can travel thorugh space, why would they live the way they do? In dirty ruinous buildings with no amenities? It just makes no sense and we are given no explanation. For anything. Ever!

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, only that it meanders from beginning to end. Between the thrilling bits I mentioned, you get more of the same boring nothingness as before. By the end, I was incredibly disappointed with the weak world-building. It is so thin that I wonder how the author managed to fill 400 pages with so much nothing. The ending does hold a couple of twists, but because Tamsyn Muir didn’t manage to make me care for any of the side characters (even the ones I could tell apart), I wasn’t really all that shocked. I just didn’t care. The very, very end does set up an interesting premise for the next book but if the writing and world-building don’t get better, I will stay far away from this.

For the handful of chapters and scenes that were truly exciting, and for Gideon’s snark, I’m giving this book 5 out of 10 points. But really, although I finished it only yesterday, I have already forgotten so much about it and I don’t even care. Every aspect of this was lacking: the world-building, the characterization, the plot (oh god, the plot), and the writing itself (if I had to read the word “myriad” one more time I would have screamed)… I don’t understand the hype. I really wish I did.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Okay


ETA: Nobody is more surprised than I am about it but I ended up strangely loving the sequel, Harrow the Ninth. Go figure…

16 thoughts on “Disappointing and messy: Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

  1. Tammy says:

    Love this review😁 I have to say I enjoyed it more than you, but the beginning was tedious and confusing. It started to get better when the murders started happening, at least for me, but the world building was very weird. And the whole space/gothic combo just didn’t work.


    • Dina says:

      I am happy for everyone who enjoyed this book, I truly am. I don’t think any of us want to dislike books but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to care about this one. But who knows, maybe the hype machine will make me pick up the sequel next year, after all. 🙂


  2. thewolfandbooks says:

    This was a very well thought out review. I started Gideon the Ninth super excited and hopeful and then it began to meander for me as well. I made it roughly around 150-200 pages before I put it down. It’s kind of bummer that even the last half leaves something more to be desired.

    I’m both a YA fiction reader and adult fiction reader, but I don’t get the crap YA fiction gets sometimes bc honestly most YA fiction hits the ground running and usually faster paced and the content is easier to engage with. But sometimes adult fiction comes of as trying too hard and then it becomes too serious and complex for the sake of being complex. Everything about the premise screamed, “This will not be boring like all those other dull, slow adult books!” And…then it did. I still plan to finish Gideon the Ninth eventually, but I wish it was more plot driven and less character driven.

    I really like these two points you made here:

    1. “But the plot – even though it had finally kicked off – doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Is it the story of a competition in a labyrinthine place where people have to perform ridiculous and dangerous tasks? Is it a murder mystery?”

    2. “My theories as to why this book didn’t work for me but did for so many others is that its focus is more on aesthetics than content. The way Gideon and Harrow are described, their face-paint for example, would make an excellent look for a movie.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. waytoofantasy says:

    Your review is on par with a lot of things I’ve heard about this one. I’ve seen so many mixed things, but then there are several people raving about it and I just can’t figure it out. Definitely still looking forward to checking it out at some point but with adjusted expectations. Great review, thanks for breaking things down so well.


  4. styleonfile says:

    Thank you for your well written review. I just finished the book and you describe almost everything that bothered and bored me. And since I don’t go for surly teen rebels, my evaluation doesn’t even come up to 5/10.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. TheReal Kaisu says:

    Thanks! I thought, I’m the only one who’s not liking the book! 😀
    At the moment – I’m listening to the audio book and finished 60% ?! – it’s so boring to follow Gideon. Just a girl with a big mouth… everything sucks, everbody is against her, no one likes her… I have no idea, if I want to finish the audio book. There are a lot of books waiting behind me XD

    Liked by 1 person

    • TheReal Kaisu says:

      Jetzt war ich so stolz, dass ich auf engl n Kommi geschrieben hab und dann erfahr ich durch nen Seitenhieb, dass du ja aus Österreich kommst XD egal, hab mich angepasst!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Dina says:

      You’re not alone! It can feel like it with the overwhelmingly positive reviews out there, but there’s at least the two of us. 🙂
      It’s such a shame because I really wanted to like this book. The ending is pretty action-packed and there’s even a cool twist. It just didn’t make up the immense boredom of the rest of the book for me, but maybe it will work for you.


  6. Dante says:

    I’m glad to have read a negative review of this novel for some perspective, but I wish you had been more “critical” in the fuller sense of the word.

    Thank you for including phrases like “That may well be my own fault.” That’s a rare amount of honesty and self-awareness in the pantheon of literary analysis. Such admissions help make room for things like personal taste/preference and what one is willing to tolerate from a narrative in their review.

    That being said, I have my own problems with this book and its sequel. My issues can be boiled down to “I really like it, but I want to be able to adore it, and there’s a ton of little things holding it back” and I wanted to read someone else’s articulation of that sentiment. Because of this position, I was hoping for a more detailed and intellectual argument about how the novel is flawed. Instead your post comes off as saying it is simply over-hyped and too vague for your liking.

    Those are perfectly acceptable positions. I’d only argue that they have much more to do with you than the work itself.

    I could go on and detail a list of exceptions I take with your perspective, but do not feel that this is a necessary thing to do or an appropriate venue in which to do it.

    What I will say, as far as my own critique of your review, is that perhaps you should level your sights at the marketing campaign and other analysts more so than at the author or novel itself. Your dissatisfaction seems to be based on not feeling you got what you were “promised” and not entirely related to the book’s presumed lack of merit. If you had known what you were getting into (OR better yet, went in with no expectations), you might have been able to better evaluate how the work carried itself and spent more effort on figuring out what it actually was.

    Finally, I am very curious to know what you would think of the sequel. “Harrow the Ninth” is WAY more “boring” and frustrating, but it also has (…eventually) a great deal more information about the universe. I my self almost put it down and swore off the author about two-thirds of the way through it. Then I finished it and immediately wanted to reread both. Who knows; maybe it would salvage the first book for you. Or maybe it would just be a huge waste of your time.

    No book is for everyone.


  7. jo says:

    Agreed. Lacking in substance of any kind and exceedingly boring. Convoluted without being fun. All the characters are dead fish. Would have done well as a series of posters, though.


  8. ShuJen says:

    I cracked up reading this review and have to agree 100%. I finished the book as well and overall thought it okay because of Gideon. She was fun. Too bad she died, so much for the star. I thought Harrow and her relationship could have been done way better. It felt empty. Maybe pool time was the best friendship scene. No convincing idea why the houses were there, naming convention lost me, and characters were shallow. What annoyed me the most is I expected an adventure story. It sets it that way at the beginning as Gideon is trying to escape. But then they get to this mansion and it becomes a “who dunnit story” followed by “creature killing people story”- crappy cliche genres I hate. The plot then stagnates, Gideon can’t talk, and I’m bored as they sit around doing nothing. I had a weird feeling about the world building and thought it was just me not knowing much about the horror necromancy genre, but I see others had the same issue. The author does have great descriptions but I hated reading about eyes and eyes and more eyes. So it was overkill. Overall I do recommend the book but as a novel writer myself, I know what not to do in a book but at the same time gotta give this author credit. She did it!!! That’s the magic. I want some of that magic!


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