A Literary Study of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.

This book has gotten a lot of word of mouth around the web. I’ve even seen it mentioned in some mainstream news outlets. After reading this, I can see why. This book had attitude.

This book also had problems. It was a glorious, hot mess of a book from a storytelling perspective. (And given Gideon’s personality, this book being a bit of a hot mess seems appropriate.) The author is very creative and has talent with the pen, but lacks some of the fundamental storytelling skills to tell a ‘perfect’ story. But stories don’t need to be ‘perfect’ to be enjoyable. I loved almost every moment reading this book, even though I was well aware of it’s narrative and prose-level flaws. Let’s get this review started.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

Previously I’ve read and enjoyed science fantasy stories. This book is a science fantasy book. The Old Kingdom series is one of my favorites (a setting with necromancers and zombie hordes). This book has necromancers and skeleton hordes. One of my favorite book is ‘Sunshine‘ by Robin McKinley. This book’s prose reminded me of ‘Sunshine,’ in terms of a casual attitude. THAT SAID, this book and ‘Sunshine’ aren’t very much alike on the tone or content level.

In short, I am somewhat in this book’s target audience. It makes sense that I would like this one.


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

Most of the time, I felt joy reading this. I enjoyed Gideon’s casual attitude. I liked how the book’s prose carried that attitude. On a textual level, this book was fun and didn’t take itself seriously.

At other moments, I got a bit impatient with the book’s casual attitude. Some silliness is fun; too much gets repetative.

The plot was a big ‘meh’ for me. I was not invested at all in the narrative of achieving ‘lychtorhood.’ Same goes for most of the side characters. There were a lot of side characters, and they were mostly forgettable. There were some highlights (Harrowhawk, Dulcinea, Magnus), but overall the side characters were too numerous to all be special. But this ‘meh’ didn’t bring the story down too much.

I really enjoyed the character of Gideon throughout the novel. She made the entire book a joyous read for me. I especially liked her character arc taken from beginning to end.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B+)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

The book’s concept is ‘haunted house adventure in necromancer space, where several competing parties try to pass a dead lich’s trials in a quest to achieve immortality. Also, the prose doesn’t take itself seriously.’ This is an ambitious concept, and I like ambitious authors.

The book’s execution was mediocre. I liked the whole necromancer aspect. I liked the prose didn’t take itself seriously. I didn’t like the plot. The plot felt listless: instead of having the main characters actively deciding their fates, the characters passively stumbled from event to event, challenge to challenge, gathering keys and dueling. As a result of this listlessness, I was reading the book for Gideon’s fun commentary rather than the plot. For me at least, the prose and protagonists was all this book had going for it.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (C+)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

The Protagonists

I liked the primary characters in this. Gideon and Harrowhawk were (mostly) fleshed out characters who were fun to read about.

Gideon was the star: her fun attitude colored the very prose of the novel with her irreverancy, making even the somewhat cliche side characters fun to read about. Gideon is a skilled swordswoman, who is chaffing at the bit to escape her highly conservative society of goth-death-nuns. Contrasted to the gloom of the rest of the House of the Ninth, Gideon’s silliness is like a splash of sunlight. I liked her fallibility as well.

Harrowhawk was a goth-death-nun, whose aptitude with necromancy was quite remarkable. More importantly, she provides the somewhat sardonic straight man to Gideon’s attitude. The two spark fireworks when they’re forced to work together, and they are forced to work together constantly. I got less of a sense of what exactly her personality is, but as she ‘s the protagonist of the next book I’m willing to give this a pass.

I thought the love story between Gideon and Harrow worked, but it wasn’t fantastic. I think they needed one or two more scenes together, developing the romance, to really stick the landing. For me at least, the ending didn’t feel quite earned; the pair didn’t have enough chemistry. Why did Gideon forgive Harrow, exactly? Harrow is toxic. I don’t like that they wound up together. (To be sure I like Harrow as a character, but Gideon could do better.)

And finally, I have to mention that I got rather annoyed by Gideon’s ‘vow of silence.’ I liked the book because of Gideon’s dialog; the author deliberately muting the character for large swaths of the book was a mistake in my eyes.

The Side Characters

The other characters were… numerous. Have you ever heard about the ‘conservation of ninjutsu?‘ The more ninjas you have in a story, the less dangerous they individually become. (Examples: If you fight one ninja, prepare for a life or death battle; if you fight a million ninjas, prepare to kill ninjas like swatting flies.) I’ve long felt that the same principle applies to characterization. The more characters your story has, the less well characterized they all can collectively be.

In ‘Gideon the Ninth,’ nine factions compete for immortality. Each faction sent two (or more) people to vie for that immortality. That’s eighteen people right there. Add to that a bunch of characters back on Gideon’s homeworld, and you have over 20 characters. By and large, very few of that 20 got more than two or three scenes of any significance, and the author relied heavy-handedly on tropes and clichés to do their characterization. Using tropes isn’t bad, but in my experience using tropes is at it’s best as a character’s jumping off point, not their entire personality.

A lot of the characters in ‘Gideon’ seemed to be included in the story simply to be killed/maimed later in the book. (I made similar complaints about ‘Ashes of the Sun‘ a while back.) Here’s the thing: I made this mistake myself recently in my own writing. I’m in the process of writing a military fantasy novel where a lot of characters die. The first draft I wrote had eight side characters die. By the time I finished the book, I realized that those eight side characters were all sock puppets who had fewer than a dozen lines apiece throughout the novel. Those eight character deaths weren’t compelling due to them being such throw away characters. I am now in the process of combining those eight characters down to just three.

I hate to say it, but a good number of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ 20 side characters felt a bit like throwaway sock puppets. Some of them were entertaining sock puppets (the antisocial kids were hilarious in the audiobook version), but they were sock puppets nonetheless.

The Antagonists

I didn’t like the antagonists. They were too obscured throughout the novel.

  • One problem a lot of books have is that they don’t have a clear goal or stakes throughout. Having an obvious antagonist provides a clear goal. This book did not have an obvious antagonist, and thus did not have a clear goal.
  • An important part of storytelling is using foreshadowing to create anticipation in the reader. Why? Because readers like foreshadowing. (Foreshadowing = clear goals and stakes.) Readers enjoy anticipating the future, and either having their guesses come true or having their expectations subverted.
  • In ‘Gideon the Ninth,’ both main antagonists were secret until the climax of the story. As a result, I-the-reader had trouble guessing how the story would end. Consequently, I had insufficient clear goals or stakes. Therefore, I couldn’t use the clear goals as foreshadowing.
  • This is bad, because a reader being able to guess the future (or having their expectations subverted) is a pleasant experience for the reader.
  • More on this later.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

Stories can be structured in formulaic ways. This includes the 3 Act Format, the 5 Act Format, the Hero’s Journey and the like. Many, if not most books, fit multiple structure formulas. In the case of ‘Gideon the Ninth,’ I think both the the 5 Act Format and the 7 Point Plot structure apply in this case.

Let’s start with examining this book using the 5 Act Plot Structure.

  1. The Status Quo
    1. Act 1 of this book takes place on Drearbuhr.
    2. Act 1 establishes the conflict-laden relationship between Harrow and Gideon. Gideon tries to escape, but Harrow outwits her.
    3. Act 1 introduces the necromantic magic and setting.
    4. Act 1 clearly establishes Gideon’s beginning personality: she desires freedom from the Ninth House, and Harrow in particular.
  2. Challenge to the Status Quo
    1. Act 2 half takes place on Drearbuhr and half in Canaan House.
    2. Act 2 embellishes the relationship between Harrow and Gideon. Gideon is lassoed unwillingly into helping Harrow achieve Lychtorhood.
    3. Act 2 introduces Canaan House and the various other Necromantic Houses which are competing for Lychtorhood.
    4. Act 2 begins the change of Gideon’s personality, by introducing Dulcinea, Gideon’s love interest.
  3. The Turning Point/ The Road of Trials
    1. Act 2 continues to enhance the relationship between Gideon and Harrow. It shows Harrow’s abusiveness, with her abandoning Gideon and forcing Gideon to swear an oath of silence.
    2. Gideon and Dulcinea’s pseudo-romance continues, with Gideon silently fawning over her. At the same time Gideon learns from the Eighth House her mother’s secret life.
    3. The eight houses compete and duel with one another over keys, gradually gaining needed necromantic skills to become a Lychtor. As the act stretches on, characters start dying.
  4. Escalation of the Challenge
    1. The murderer(s) are revealed, and the stakes are upped.
    2. There are various duels between the surviving cavaliers.
    3. Harrow tells Gideon the truth about their past, and Gideon forgives Harrow.
    4. Dulcinaea reveals herself as the true antagonist.
  5. Climax and Conclusion
    1. A big battle between Harrow, Gideon, Dulcinea and Ianthe.
    2. Ianthe is defeated due to magic system reasons.
    3. Gideon sacrifices herself to save Harrow.
    4. Harrow defeats Dulcinea due to Gideon’s sacrifice.

This is a pretty clean example of a story using the 5 Act Format. Gideon’s personality experiences a clear progression from beginning to end: she starts hating Harrow, transitioning to liking Dulcinea, being betrayed by Dulcinea, and winding up with Harrow.

And this is the 7 Point Plot Structure rundown of this story.

  1. Hook/Status Quo
    1. The book’s status quo is the sequence on Drearbuhr. In particular, it’s the establishment of the fiery relationship between Gideon and Harrow.
    2. The hook is the overabundance of skeletons, the space ships, and Gideon’s fun attitude.
  2. Plot Turn 1/Inciting Incident
    1. The inciting incident of this story is the arrival of the letter on Drearbuhr, inviting Harrow to become a Lychtor, and Harrow twisting Gideon’s arm into accompanying her to Canaan House.
  3. Pinch 1/Protagonist Acts 1
    1. Pinch 1 is Gideon ‘saving’ Dulcinea’s life on the shuttlepad, beginning the subplot between Gideon and Dulcinea.
  4. Midpoint Confrontation
    1. I don’t think this book had a true midpoint confrontation. Instead it had multiple minor midpoint-ish battles which qualify.
    2. Specifically:
      1. The battle against the self-reconstructing bone golem.
      2. The battle against the enormous bone thing which killed Isaac.
      3. The various sparring duels/duels for keys between the chevaliers.
    3. As a result of these conflicts, Gideon and Harrow wind up on the back foot most of the time.
  5. Pinch 2/ Protagonist Acts 2
    1. Harrow/Gideon team up to complete several trials, gaining keys and needed information to become a lychtor.
    2. Harrow confesses to Gideon her origin story.
  6. Plot Turn 2/ Relief and Respite/Darkest Before Dawn
    1. This is a darkest before the dawn story beat. It’s revealed that not only is Dulcinea a murderer, but so too is Ianthe.
  7. Resolution/Climax and Denouement
    1. Big fight scene. Dulcinea defeats Ianthe and Harrow. Gideon sacrifices herself. Harrow is victorious.
    2. There’s no Denouement, besides a quick epilog between the Emperor and Harrow. I’m a bit pissed about that because I like denouements.

Using these two formulas as tools to study the story, can we determine if this story could have been improved? I think so. Some of the internal plot points in the middle of the book (especially surrounding the midpoint confrontation) were a bit muddled. In my opinion it is better to have a strong and memorable midpoint climax instead of multiple small events which make up a midpoint confrontation.

There’s a saying in screenwriting: ‘If there a pacing problem in the final third of the story, the REAL problem is back in the first third of the story.’

I feel as though the pacing of the first half of the story was paced too slow. Using the 5 act format, I’d say that acts 2 and half of 3 were too slow. Why was the plot slow? Check the next section on ‘plot,’ where I discuss tension and stakes. The short version is that the early story was meandering, and that early meanderingness made the late revelations feel cheap and from out-of-nowhere.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (C+)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

I did not like the plot of this novel. Harrowhawk wants immortality, and she’s lassoed in Gideon to help her achieve that immortality. Together they go to a haunted house in space, and pass trials left behind by long-deceased necromancers to gain eternal undeath as a reward.

Ultimately, I think the problem I had with the main plot of this novel came from the stakes.

  • Gideon was not invested in Harrow gaining immortality. Why?
  • Because Gideon actively hates Harrow.
  • The reader’s perspective of this novel is from Gideon perspective.
  • As Gideon doesn’t like Harrow, and the reader’s perspective of this novel is from Gideon’s perspective, the reader therefore hates Harrow too.
  • Therefore, the reader doesn’t care about the outcome of the main plot.

TENSION

I had problems with both the first third, and the last third of this story.

The book’s tension was pretty low for the first half of the novel. Characters died in this book, but it was mostly constrained to the second half of the book. But because those deaths were not properly foreshadowed in the first third, they felt somewhat out-of-nowhere and cheap in the final third.

As I mentioned above, the first half of this book felt listless. Here is my perspective on why it was listless.

  • The characters received invites to go to a haunted house in order to receive immortality. When they get there, they receive no instruction on how to achieve immortality. Instead they wander around from room to room, chatting, with no clear plan.
  • It would have been better if the author clearly established from the outset that only one or two of the aspirants could achieve immortality, due to the limited number of keys. Having a competition established early on would raise the stakes and make it clear that the aspirant immortals would have to fight/kill one another.

I felt as though a good chunk of this book could have been cut out for the sake of creating a leaner whole.

The second half of the book was more compelling. When the bodies started appearing the stakes and tension finally started ramping up to the point where I cared about the book. Up until the point that Magnus died I was debating whether or not I would return the audiobook to the library unfinished.

Now going back to the plot-thread I mentioned about the obscured antagonists.

I personally feel that it’s important to have at least one obvious antagonist in a story. Why? Because having an obvious antagonist makes the reader think that at some point the obvious antagonist will need to be defeated. Having an obvious antagonist acts as foreshadowing to the end of the novel, promising there will be some sort of final showdown. Even if the obvious antagonist isn’t the true antagonist, merely having an antagonist serves as foreshadowing of what sort of story you’re reading.

Part of my problem with this book’s plot was the fact that there was no obvious antagonist for most of the book. I didn’t know that the book even had antagonists until Magnus was dead. The reader not knowing this was a book with antagonists makes it really hard to foreshadow a final battle against an antagonist, and foreshadowing is important to establish the plot. As a result of the antagonist’s obscurity, the final battle felt kinda out of left field (at least for me).

Did this book’s plot work when viewed as a whole? Yes. However, I did not personally enjoy how the first half of the book didn’t set up the major conflicts in the second half.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (C)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

Gideon’s attitude seeps into every aspect of the narrative. Gideon is a fantasy character who wields anachronistically modern slang in a weird necromancy setting, trying to be as irreverant as possible. By and large this anachronistic language enhances the story’s flavor, makes it fun. At moments the anachronism overstays it’s welcome; for me at least, I sometimes got bored with the anachronism and wanted the author to get on with the story.

Did the weird anachronism prose work here? For me, yes. Do I want to read a million more books in this style? No. I hope very few authors are inspired to have this anachronistic prose style in their novels. It works here in ‘Gideon the Ninth’ because this is the first time I’ve seen it. The more authors who use a similar prose style the less innovative and more tired it will become. I completely understand why someone would not like this book due to the prose.

This book’s prose reminded me of the ‘Dresden Files’ books, with a quippy protagonist who uses modern slang. It also reminds me of ‘Sunshine’ like I said above, in terms of having a prose style which feels casual. If you liked either of those, maybe check this out.

The book’s tone was weird. For a book about necromancers, skeleton-monsters and haunted houses, it wasn’t a horror story. The book’s casual style worked to contrast the dark plot devices. The tone largely worked. At moments I liked the weird tone, but at moments I wanted something more serious.

The book’s theme was sacrificing yourself to save those you love. It was okay-ishly implemented.

  • Necromancy functions on the principle of making yourself bleed/die to fuel your magic.
  • To pass multiple trials, Gideon and Harrow have to cooperate and suffer to achieve their goals.
  • In the end, Ianthe is defeated because her swordsman didn’t voluntarily sacrifice himself to achieve victory. Meanwhile Gideon and Harrow were victorious because Gideon voluntarily sacrificed herself for Harrow.

Not the best theme, honestly. It’s there, but it doesn’t really underpin the entire story. I won’t dock too many points for it, though.

I give the Authorial Voice: (A-)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

Spoilers in this one.

The book’s setting is original. Based upon the research I’ve done online, this is set in a far future, where a different necromancy house has colonized a different planet in our solar system. The Ninth House colonized Pluto, where an order of goth-death-nuns eternally watch over the ‘Locked Tomb’ to make sure that the corpse within is never brought back to life.

I loved the conceit of the Ninth House: the Ninth are so goth about necromancy that even other necromancers think they’re weird.

My one drawback: Unfortunately I never really got an impression of the cultural uniqueness of the other eight planets in the solar system. What makes the Third House special? Or the Sixth House? Or the Eighth House? The author is very creative; I wish all the houses were as cool as the Ninth.

I liked the haunted house as a setting. The author’s sepulchrual language- especially the focus on the darkness and decay- really brought the eternal-but-dying house into detail. It’s a really sweet setting. I liked Drearbuhr even better, with it’s monks and nuns, and surfeit of undead. I still find the thought of using human knucklebones as prayer beads is a genius idea.

I give the Setting: (A+)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

The audiobook narrator did a fine job of bringing this one to life. My one quibble is that she didn’t do much in the way of accents/voices for the different characters. However, doing accents can be touch and go at the best of times. I am satisfied with the audiobook.

I give the Audiobook: (B)


LESSONS LEARNED

  • Part of what makes something feel like it has high stakes and tension, is the possibility of negative consequences for the protagonist’s failure. Until the first body shows up, this book doesn’t present much in the way of the possibility of negative consequences for the protagonist’s failure.
  • Anachronistic prose like Gideon’s dialog can be broadly popular, so long as such language has not reached market saturation (aka not too many books are written in that style). Therefore, it’s good to be somewhat adventuresome in your prose.
  • It’s better to have a single, memorable midpoint conflict than multiple tiny midpoint conflicts.
  • You can have twist villains, so long as they are sufficiently foreshadowed. But if you don’t foreshadow any villain and then have a twist villain, that villain might not work for all readers.
  • Goth-death-nuns can work. The moral of the story is don’t be afraid of having fun with your worldbuilding.

WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • Anyone 15 or older, but this is mainly an adult novel.
  • Anyone in the mood for crass necromancer lesbians.

SUMMARY

This is a good book. For me at least, this book struggled with some of the fundamentals of plot, character and structure. However the book’s tone and authorial style was very charming and made the book readable. I especially loved the worldbuilding and setting.


STARS: 3.3 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, Sci fi, Science Fantasy, LGBT, Adult, Mystery

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


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A Review of ‘Breach of Peace’ by Daniel B. Greene

A Literary Analysis of ‘The Dragon Republic’ by R. F. Kuang, Book 2 in the Poppy War series

A Literary Discussion of ‘Ashes of the Sun’ by Django Wexler, first book in the ‘Burningblade & Silvereye’ series

A Literary Analysis of ‘The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon, Book 1 of The Deed of Paksenarion

A Literary Discussion of ‘The Rage of Dragons’ by Evan Winter

A Literary Critique of ‘Battle Ground’ by Jim Butcher, Book 17 of ‘The Dresden Files’ series

A Review of ‘Blue Moon Rising’ by Simon Green

A Review of ‘Light of The Jedi’ by Charles Soule

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