In the myriadic year of 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.
In the Eternal Record of great opening lines, that one is ... up there. It's not at the top because it's a little weird, a little long, a little clunky and oddly punctuated. It can't compete with punchier, pithier, more highly polished openers, but who would want to? That isn't a front-row line. It isn't precocious or precious enough. No, it's a line that lurks a little bit further back in the pack; that mocks its betters under its breath and slinks right into your brain to let you know exactly what you're in for.
The opening line of Tamsyn Muir's debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, is, in effect, a primal distillation of everything that comes after. All the weird, all the violence, all the rebellious snark and darkness live in that one line. Gideon Nav — orphaned girl, ward of the Ninth House, smart and mean and bad-ass from shades to bones — lives in that line. It brings her to life like a fingersnap. Makes you want to know more.
Which is precisely what the rest of the book is for. First of a proposed trilogy, Gideon the Ninth is a freaky science-fantasy-horror-romance mash-up that owes its innards to M.A.S.H. and Harry Potter in equal measure; to a thousand Agatha Christie locked-house mysteries and Sweet Valley High. The set-up is genius: In some (possibly distant, possibly ancient, probably super-far-future) corner of the universe exist nine ancient houses with nine rulers and heirs adept in different forms of gooey, death-obsessed magic. Some can talk to ghosts. Some can siphon the soul right out of your body. The Lady Harrowhark Nonagesimus, heir to the Ninth House where Gideon Nav has been kept as a kind of miserable indentured servant since she was a baby, can raise and control skeletons.
One day, word comes down from the Undying Emperor (a big-G God in every important sense of the word) that each loyal house will send a necromancer and their "cavalier primary" (kind of a champion bodyguard and executive assistant) to a huge, decrepit and seriously old mansion full of ghosts and monsters, where they will face a series of tests to become the new lyctors to the Emperor.
Being a lyctor is cool. You're pretty much all-powerful. You live forever. You become a kind of horrifying saint and are super-famous and work directly for God as one of his right-hand men or women. Everyone wants to be a lyctor, so every house from across the galaxy sends their finest specimens to the creepy mansion to take a crack at the trials. The Ninth sends Harrow, with Gideon (who has tried — and failed — to escape something like 600 times since being taken in) as her extremely reluctant cavalier.
The two of them hate each other. Have hated each other for all of their lives. But now they have to depend on each other to survive because, of course, the minute everyone arrives at Caanan House (the creepy mansion), all communications are blacked out, all the fancy space shuttles they came in are pushed into the sea, and they are told there's a very good chance that all of them are going to die, because there's something horrible hidden inside Caanan House. And it is hungry.
These stories never go any other way. No one ever has to spend a week in a haunted house only to find it filled with, like, puppies and cake.
But Muir uses the claustrophobia and narrowed focus to fine purpose, concentrating the action around a series of increasingly torturous tests (which serve both to hook the plot along and give some baseline explanations for the entwined science, religion and necromantic magic on which her universe depends) and the relationships that develop between the limited cast of characters — particularly Gideon and Harrow.
If this were a cheesy 80's teen sex comedy (which, in some ways, it kinda is), Harrow would be the icy, blonde rich girl with the big house and perfect clothes. And Gideon would be the wrong-side-of-the-tracks bad boy who loves her and hates her in vastly unequal amounts. Except here, Harrow is the black-gowned, black-cloaked, black-hooded daughter of the Ninth House rulers, a powerful bone magician who sweats blood and can kill you with a flick of her wrist. And Gideon is a smart, foul-mouthed, queer swordfighter with a skull painted on her face, and the inside-her-brain POV that Muir has chosen here means we get full access to every panting, furious, childish, bloodthirsty and impure thought that crosses Gideon's mind — which is fantastic, because I wanted to be her best friend by the end of the first page anyway, and everything that came after was just candy.
Gideon the Ninth is too funny to be horror, too gooey to be science fiction, has too many spaceships and autodoors to be fantasy, and has far more bloody dismemberings than your average parlor romance. It is altogether its own thing — brilliantly original, messy and weird straight through. With a snorting laugh and two middle fingers, the whole thing burns end-to-end. It is deep when you expect shallow, raucous when you expect dignity and, in the end, absolutely heartbreaking when you least expect it.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.