Why You Need to Read: “Gideon the Ninth”

The Locked Tomb #1: Gideon the Ninth

By: Tasmyn Muir                                                                   Audiobook: 16 hours 50 minutes

Published: September 10, 2019                                              Narrated by: Moira Quirk

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Gothic

            When as a young and disinclined member of the Locked Tomb Gideon had painted her face, she had gone for the bare minimum of death’s-head that the role demanded: dark around the eyes, a bit around the nose, a slack black slash across the lips. Now as Harrowhark gave her a little palm of cracked mirror, she saw that she was painted like the ancient, tottering necromancers of the House: those ghastly and unsettling sages who never seemed to die, just disappear into the long galleries of books and coffins beneath Drearburh. She’d been slapped up to look like a grim-toothed, black-socketed skull, with big black holes on each side of the mandible.

            Gideon said drearily, “I look like a douche,” (5). 

            Hype and marketing for a book is an interesting feat some people find themselves in. Publishers and bookstores—usually through marketers—are paid to advertise such books for sale. Librarians read these books in order to determine whether or not the book(s) are “appropriate for their library and/or community.” And, reviewers—including book critics and bookbloggers—read these books and give an opinion on why each book should or should not be read. There are moments when reviews are controversial because they don’t match with the public’s opinion or the hype surrounding the book. That’s not to say that the book is “bad” or written poorly, but it didn’t meet the expectations of the reader. For me, this is what I felt while reading/listening to Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.

            The protagonist is eighteen-year-old Gideon Nav, an indentured servant of the Ninth House, who are the Keepers of the Locked Tomb. Gideon’s life at the Ninth House has been nothing but harsh, neglectful, and mysterious. Readers meet Gideon as she tries to leave the Ninth House for the 33rd time. Instead, Gideon is bribed by Harrowhark Nonagesimus—the daughter and heir to the House of the Ninth—to train to be her cavalier so that she can train to become a Lyctor, one of the Imperial Saints for the Emperor. Gideon is promised her freedom if she does this “for the Ninth,” so Gideon and Harrow travel to the House of the First to train and to serve. There Gideon meets and interacts with: Teacher—one of the Keepers of the First House and servant to the Necrolord Heights; Abigail Pent and her cavalier, Magnus Quinn, of the Fifth House; Coronabeth Tridentarius and her cavalier, Protesilaus Eldoma, of the Seventh House; and several other heirs and their cavaliers from the other Houses, and a lot of skeletons. Gideon—while reluctant to serve the Ninth House—does take advantage of being away from the only place she’s known, leaves the planet, and trains in swordsmanship. Gideon does have to follow Harrowhark’s orders—to an extent—but, through her interactions with the other Houses and the tasks she manages to complete with Harrow, Gideon grows into the person she wants to be without interference from the Ninth House: helpful, caring, and strong (in a fight). Meanwhile, the other Houses learn that there’s more to the Ninth House than its titular role. 

            The plot of the novel is straightforward: The Emperor (of the First House) has called for the heirs of the other eight Houses to train to be Lyctors in order to serve as replacements for the current Lyctors. So, each heir and their cavalier travel to the First House where they are trained and are tested to the best of their knowledge and their strength. The nominated Hands must figure out the “puzzle” of their House with their cavalier so that the Hand can become a Lyctor. All of this is easier said than done, but all of the Hands are willing to do it. There are a few subplots in this novel. The first surrounds what it takes and what it means to be a Lyctor. Harrow wants to become one, and she is an extremely talented necromancer, but the testing to become a Lyctor is a process that must be solved by the Hand and the cavalier working together. This is interesting because Gideon and Harrowhark do NOT get along. So, in order to get what they both want, they’ll have to put up with each other to accomplish the goal. The second subplot is the mystery of the Ninth House and its establishment, from the Locked Tomb to the childhoods of both Gideon and Harrow. The other Houses are more curious by this than Gideon is, but Gideon doesn’t know, and Harrow isn’t going to talk about it to anyone. Or, will she? The last subplot focuses on the strange occurrences that begin to happen to the Hands and their cavaliers. Everyone is interested in new recruits arriving at the First House, right? All of these subplots work alongside the plot of the novel in order to embellish the world, the characters and the current predicament within this novel. 

            The narrative in Gideon the Ninth follows a present sequence from Gideon’s point-of-view. Her stream-of-consciousness gives readers insight into her thoughts (cynical, yet curious) while learning about the other eight Houses, which is something that didn’t interest her until now. The world-building—which includes the history and the culture of each House—comes from Gideon’s learning of them. The fight sequences and the many revelations come from Gideon’s P.O.V. Some of what is presented to her is told as a recitation and not as a flashback. This means that Gideon’s reactions are genuine and relatable, which make her a reliable narrator. The narrative is intriguing and is easy to follow. 

            The style Tasmyn Muir uses in her debut novel follows Gothic romance. In short—and, according to A Glossary of Literary Terms—“The locale was often a gloomy castle furnished with dungeons, subterranean passages, and sliding panels; the typical story focused on the sufferings imposed on an innocent heroine by a cruel and lustful villain, and made bountiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences,” (p. 151). Fans of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë are familiar with this genre of literature. However, I’m saying that Gideon the Ninth has elements of a gothic novel, NOT that it is one! The “villain” isn’t lustful, the supernatural occurrences—necromancy—is part of the world, and while it does have dungeons and secret passages, the First House isn’t described as being gloomy (when compared to the Ninth House). These gothic elements enhance the story the author is telling, which she does very well. The mood in this novel is anticipation. The summons from the First House does not only contain orders to attend, but also a chance to serve the Emperor, which is something the heirs are taught to do from childhood; and, their cavaliers get to serve their Houses. The tone in this book is dread. In a world where necromancy is the magic used and the setting is gothic, readers should expect more than a few unpleasant things to occur throughout the narrative. 

            I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Moira Quirk. She does a great job with narrating the story, voicing the various characters, and with the pronunciation of the characters’ names. I would not have been able to pronounce ANY of those names on my own, so to say that the audiobook was a huge help would be an understatement. The narration kept me engaged with the story as well.

            The appeal for Gideon the Ninth have been positive. Not only has the book, and the author, received a lot of fan and critical acclaim, but also has been nominated for several awards including the Nebula and the Hugo Awards. I can see how this book can become part of the (dark) fantasy canon and how it will have lasting appeal. However, this book neither was worth the hype nor was the best debut novel I’ve read. I’m not the only bookblogger who feels this way about this book. Then again, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read it. The story itself kept my interest to the end; enough so that I want to read the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, when it is released in September 2020. This book wasn’t my favorite one, but my interest is piqued to where I’m okay with rereading parts of Gideon the Ninth in order to understand the sequel.

            Gideon the Ninth is an ambitious debut which hits enough marks to make for a good and fun reading experience. While I did not enjoy this book as much as other bookbloggers, the story and the world intrigued me enough to finish this book and wanting to read the sequel. Please understand that just because I didn’t enjoy this book doesn’t mean that you’ll feel the same way. That being said, if you want to read a story about necromancers and sword fighting, with gothic elements, then this book is for you.

My Rating: Read It (3.5 out of 5). 

Works Cited 

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed., Wadsworth, 

            2012. 

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!