If, like me, you hesitated to buy this book when it came out, either because of the slightly too slick publisher’s summary or because of all the hype this debut novel received everywhere, kick yourself for being so untrusting, get yourself a copy, preferably the superbly narrated audiobook, and settle in for a wonderful read.
This is not a conventional book. It resists labelling. Yes its fantasy… and science-fiction… and horror… but mostly it’s a tale about two women who have the kind of complicated relationship that only those raised together in isolation with no one but each other to hate and torment and fight with and perhaps, underneath it all, need, can have.
Gideon is an orphan, left by a dying woman at the airlock of the sepulchral Ninth House, where necromancers talented in manipulating bones guard a tomb that must never be opened. Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, is a powerful bone witch and the best hope of her dying House. The two of them have been in constant conflict, the focal points of each other’s lives, since childhood. Gideon wants to escape, to join the Cohorts and fight for the Empire on the front line. Harrowhark will not let her leave.
When the never-seen, undying Emperor summons Harrow to represent her House at an unprecedented event to generate new Lictors, almost immortal enforcers of the Emperor’s will, she must take a Cavalier with her and the you-can’t-seriously-want-me-to-do-this? I’d-rather-be-flayed-alive Gideon is her only viable choice.
I’m not going to say any more about the plot than that. Any attempt to summarise it will either give too much away or give a misleadingly simple view of the book. I’m going to concentrate on what it felt like to read.
I’ll start by sharing the notes I made as I read the book (which I picked up at every opportunity and lost myself in for hours at a time. I’ve never had seventeen hours of book flash by so quickly and be so completely absorbing).
“I’m only a few chapters in and I’m already delighted with this. Gideon is wonderful, the ideas are clever and the tone is perfect for a sort of necromancer’s St. Trinian’s with Gideon a chief schoolgirl warrior rebel.”
Moira Quirk’s narration is first rate. She doesn’t read, she performs, squeezing every ounce of juice out of the text and bringing this large cast of characters alive with voices that are instantly recognisable.
“I’ve still no idea what’s really happening here but, oddly, that’s OK. More than OK. Mostly because Gideon has no idea either.
Gideon is such a ball of energy and emotion that’s she’s enough to fill my imagination. Add in sneering bad guys, beautiful but untrustworthy will-probably-turn-out-to-be-bad-guys, lethal challenges, a stalking monster, vicious killings of nice people and the enigma that is Harrow and it’s all good.
“Wow, that was one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve read. Great characters. Creepy magic. A twisty mystery and complete emotional absorption.”
One of the peculiar things about this book was that a lot of the time I wasn’t sure what was going on but that made the story better, not worse. I knew what Gideon knew (which wasn’t a lot – she’s led an isolated life and isn’t gifted with much curiosity) and that was enough. Gideon’s universe wasn’t explained, it was experienced. Tamsyn Muir clearly had a galaxy-spanning eons-long history of the universe in her head but most of it she didn’t dump it into mine because Gideon either took it for granted, didn’t know and didn’t care or was too busy using her sword or trying to figure out all the emotions being triggered by meeting all these new people AND being on the same side as Harrow.
Gideon’s and Harrow’s personal history wasn’t so much hidden as taken for granted. It wasn’t something they wanted to talk about and when they did talk about it, there was so much emotion-soaked history that sharing was hard. Beneath the surface, though, there was a skilful and carefully paced reveal going on throughout the book that amped up the emotion chapter by chapter, delivered a few surprises and avoided all the clichés.
The way in which the whole who-will-become-a-Lictor? thing was handled was also unexpected. This wasn’t the typical teams-competing-in-a-magical-challenge trope. It wasn’t clear what the challenge was. It wasn’t clear who the good guys were. It wasn’t a gladiatorial conflict or a Hunger Games style elimination game. There was a pattern and the challenge seemed to be figuring out what it was. Then the killings started, adding a whole new layer of mystery.
The challenge and the killings frustrated all the normal challenge/quest conventions and left only questions and uncertainty in their place. And I didn’t care because I had Gideon and an author who could create Gideon wasn’t going to let me down. I was happy to live with Gideon’s level of ignorance and her tendency to do and feel rather than analyse and plot, even if a lot o the time that meant that I was feeling the plot with my fingertips rather than opening my eyes and looking around me.
So what is Gideon like? Well, she’s not the typical snarky. bad-ass, sword-wielding fantasy heroine. She does have snark and some wonderful insults. She is good (very, very, good) with a sword and she’d rather fight than party. She’s also young and has never been anywhere or met anyone and she knows she hates Harrow but that Harrow is also the only person who really knows her. She’s fascinated by the people she’s meeting. Some she wants to hit. Some she wants to protect and some she just wants to watch as they come out of the pool wearing only a camisole and shorts. She’s finding her way but her way always seems to involve finding herself in situations where she’s quite likely to die but which still seem better than the alternative.
I loved how unexpected this book was. I loved that the relationships are never simple, that things you think you know often turn out to be untrue, and the energy that comes from sustained emotional ambiguity.
I loved the snark, mostly because it was just a grace note on more subtle character building. I loved that all of the characters were rounded out so that I cared whether people lived or died. I was impressed by the complex rules/science of necromancy, by the vivid swordplay, the animated skeletons, the fight scenes, the betrayals, the bravery and the fact that the underlying plot worked beautifully, albeit in retrospect.
If you surrender to Tamsyn Muir’s text and Moira Quirk’s superb narration, this whole book is a rush that will make you laugh and cry, keep you eagerly turning the pages and constantly reassessing what’s going on. Most of all it will burn Gideon into your memory.
Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.