Gideon the Ninth - start of the Locked Tomb Trilogy
Because the marketing hype for Gideon appeals more to millennials it led me to avoid this book until I was desperate for something new. The publisher's blurb also gives the impression of yet another teen competition plot albeit with lesbian necromancers and dirty magazines this time. The first chapter does in fact mention dirty magazines, and there are in fact necromancers, but ignore the rest as the Post-Resurrection Empire is a unique and strange setting. The Undying Emperor, father of the resurrection, has spent the last ten thousand years fighting a terrible cosmic threat with the aid of his immortal Lyctors. For the first time he has issued an invitation to the eight noble houses to send their best necromancer, along with their cavalier, to attempt Ascension and become Lyctors to replace the fallen. The brilliant and psychotic necromancer Harrowhark sees this as an opportunity to save the dying Ninth House if she Ascends but first she needs a cavalier. Gideon only cares because the announcement interrupts her latest and best attempt to escape the Ninth and join the army but then Harrowhark offers her an irresistible deal. Help Harrow Ascend and she will not only sign the paperwork so she can legally join the army, but also have Gideon commissioned as an officer.
Seventeen years ago a woman literally dropped out of the sky on the frozen world where the Ninth House guards the Last Tomb, may it never open. She died before reaching the surface because she was only wearing a basic life support suit and she had rerouted most of the power to protect the baby with her. Vexed by the mystery she presented and a desire for answers the woman was raised but her spirit fought back and said only "Gideon" before escaping. With no background or money the child, Gideon, was indentured until she served the House long enough to repay for her upbringing. Gideon hates absolutely everything about the Ninth. They rule a cold and worthless planet while they guard the mysterious Last Tomb whose opening will supposedly doom the Empire. But the Ninth is slowly dying. No new necromancers have joined the Sisters of the Locked Tomb in ages and there is only one other child of Gideon's generation, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth, Harrowhark, a brilliant Osseous necromancer.
From the time Gideon and Harrowhark arrive at the First House, an ocean world with only a single decaying palace mostly above water, the process of Ascension is nothing like the training regime she imagined. There are only three priests there who can offer no advice or guidelines beyond a single rule, "Don't enter any locked rooms without permission". They don't even realize it might be a competition until the oldest necro and her cavalier husband are found dead. What was a baffling and intriguing puzzle for the participants is now suddenly a matter of life and death because someone or something is killing them. In the meantime, Gideon and Harrow have come to the unpleasant conclusion that they must work together if Harrow is to succeed and Gideon is to collect her reward. This brings to light the the complicated relationship between the two children who grew up in isolation and mostly fearing each other. There are also some tantalizing hints that might refer to Gideon's mysterious origin. As their allies slowly disappear or die, and Harrow comes closer to Ascension, they discover more about each other and learn what success might cost them.
Gideon is incredibly well written for an author's first published book. The first chapter seems designed to provide plenty of, "wow I can't believe she said that" which might be more appealing to younger readers than myself, as well as an introduction to the relationship between the two main characters. Due to loneliness and their relative positions they both loved and hated each other as the only other children. But a terrible secret burdened them both with fear and guilt that they have never tried to deal with. While Harrowhark chose a mask of arrogance and cruelty, Gideon became a rebel who attempted to shock those around her with words and attitude whenever possible. Once past that first chapter, Gideon's commentary is more irony and sarcasm than obnoxious shock factor which makes her a much more likable character. The occasional contemporary idiom in the book makes it more relatable but at times it also makes you wonder just how such a saying could survive intact for over ten thousand years.
The only real flaw is a giant galaxy sized problem that the characters apparently don't consider until the book is almost over. Maybe its not so obvious to other readers but I suspect it is. Fortunately the plot and its other mysteries are compelling enough for me to keep reading. For those intrigued by the description of lesbian necromancers this was greatly exaggerated in the marketing. Gideon is in fact a lesbian but she's not a necromancer. She does flirt with one of the necromancers, the pretty young woman in the terminal stages of a disease, but there is no actual evidence that the necro is a lesbian and not just manipulating a lonely girl. For that matter half of the necros are men. Nor is this really a competition. The eight necros could have chosen to share their information and all eight successfully Ascend with one exception as only one of the twins is allowed to Ascend. Not that human nature lends itself to cooperation when power is on the line.
If the length of this review is anything to go by you can see there is a lot going on in Gideon the Ninth. Especially since this is only a bare overview of a book that had me thinking about it for days and eagerly anticipating the second book, Harrow the Ninth. There are at least three big questions going forward. Who exactly is Gideon and why do we assume she will be important? Who is in the Last Tomb and why does the Emperor fear them? What does it mean to be a Lyctor and fighting with the Emperor in far off space? In both E-book and audio the reviews come in at 4.5 stars. The audio narrator, Moira Quirk, has a long list of credits including a part in Pierce Brown's Dark Age, book 5 of the Red Rising series.