Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

“We do bones, motherf*cker”

Sometimes, you stumble across a book that has such an intriguing, batsh*t concept, you can’t help but want to delve immediately into the book. That is what Tasmyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is – her debut novel and the first one as part of the Locked Tomb trilogy.

With a tagline that really speaks for itself – “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” – this book tries to pack a lot in. And when I say a lot I mean that I had to make quite a few notes along the way, especially over the more technical terms re: necromancy and how it works. But it is also immersive and rich in its worldbuilding, with witty character dialogue, and heartbreaking narrative that made me cry a few times and laugh raucously at others. It also, much to my delight, subtly (and at times, not so subtly) makes references to memes and fanfic (if you too, like me, have spent way too much time on the internet and know your fanfiction tropes, you’ll spot them).

In a world where there exist eight other Houses, each bound to serve the omnipotent Emperor Undying, the Necrolord Prime of the First House, we are introduced to our protagonist and POV character Gideon Nav. Gideon is an indentured servant of the Ninth House, likewise bound to serve her childhood nemesis Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Princess-Necromancer of the Ninth House – a goth house where skull face paint is applied liberally, and they summon skeletons as a primary source of their power. You’ve got to love a House that goes all out for the aesthetic.

The plot unfolds as the long-suffering duo embark to the planet of the First House along with the representatives of seven other Houses – the heirs and their cavaliers – with the goal to become a Lyctor (immortal servants who serve the Necrolord Prime). But as is quickly made apparent, all is not as it seems in this First House, and the goal of becoming a Lyctor far more muddied and complex than initially thought. The dynamic and banter between Gideon and Harrowhark which sits at the front of this novel, is particularly enjoyable to read: the former a foul-mouthed, brash jock, the latter a long-suffering, cerebral, sharp-tongued necromancer.

“But Gideon was experiencing one powerful emotion: being sick of everyone’s shit”

It’s sci-fi, with a smattering of gothic suspense, action, and murder mystery all wrapped into one intriguing, exciting, and heady cocktail. You follow Gideon as each of the characters in this crumbling, old palace try to figure out the long-lost secrets of Lyctorhood, whilst trying not to fall foul of any…further, darker secrets hidden away in this place. They are each pitted against each other whilst working together, and as the tension and suspicion grows, Muir drips feeds information about what-the-hell-is-going-on to you at the right points, in a way that kept me continually guessing (and yes, make notes as you read. It’s worth it, I promise).

The array of supporting characters with their different types of cultures and death magics are brilliant too (I would die for the Sixth House, not to be too dramatic about it), and soon you find yourself trying to navigate this haunted house trying to root for as many of them as possible (whilst outright despising others).

One flesh, one end. Bitch.”

This is a book which doesn’t pull its punches, whether that’s in the intricately detailed lore it drops, in the vicious, downright scary fight scenes that are nail-bitingly tense, or in the emotional dialogue it clocks you around the face with.

One thing I particularly loved about this novel is its depictions of relationships; specifically the connection between the Necromancers and Cavaliers. If there’s a trope I love seeing it’s the “ride or die” connection that Muir explores so wonderfully, and with such nuance, between each House. One cannot exist without the other – a heartbreaking point that sits at the centre of the entire book and ends on a traumatic cliffhanger. 

Final verdict : 

Gideon the Ninth takes an extremely intriguing premise and delivers up a wonderful, heart wrenching, and rich story. There is so much here, it deserves to be read and then re-read, with new points picked up upon each time. This is a must read for sci-fi fans at the very least.

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

I know that you should never judge a book by its cover, but when Orbit sent me this in the post and I opened it to see tiny cats in space suits, I already knew that this was going to be a space opera that I would enjoy. 

“Kidnappers. Alien emperors. Psychic cats. And she’s out of coffee.” 

Valdes’ debut novel is one that teems with depth, colour and (extra-terrestrial) life. But despite the sprawling universe she depicts, the heart and core of the book is very much grounded in human (well, humanoid) emotion, centred around its protagonist Captain Eva Innocente and her crew onboard La Sirena Negra. When word is received that Eva’s sister is kidnapped by an intergalactic mob boss named The Fridge (yes, you read that right), she must go on a series of dangerous missions to get her back. But, as you might imagine in such a complex galaxy such as this, all is not as it seems and the Captain slowly uncovers more than she was blackmailed for.

Much like the novel’s protagonist finds, once you get into the thick of Chilling Effect there are so many twists and turns to follow, it is sometimes hard to keep up, but no less entertaining. From psychic cats, aliens who hunt anything without a bracelet marking it not to, to brainwashing monks, early on in the novel, Valdes introduces us to a particularly grotesque example of this “twist”in the form of an amorous space Emperor (aptly named the Glorious Apotheosis). A fish-man who won’t take no for an answer, he meets Eva and tries to get her to join his harem, only to set a bounty on her head when she says no and hunts her across the galaxy (and throughout the entire novel) popping up at inopportune moments to wreck her ship, rather like a bull in a china shop.

“Between psychic cats, and kidnapped sisters, and her own booze addled temper, she was ready to unload on someone. […] “My name is Captain Eva Innocente” she slurred. “You can call me Captain, which is safe, or you can shut up, which is safer.” 

Eva Innocente is vivacious and gusty, a protagonist whose escapades and personality make for an engaging read. This book is one that effortlessly slides between hilarity and seriousness as the plot demands (and for all the humour, there are some well-realised serious, if heart-warming moments). There is much to be said for the diversity of the crew too alongside its Cuban-descended, foul-mouthed Captain, and how well Valdes makes you engage with each of Eva’s found family as well as the biological one she seeks (reminding me rather fondly of Mass Effect).

The budding, and at times incredibly awkward, alien romance between Vakar, the ship’s engineer, and Eva is adorable, and whose interactions are some of my favourite moments in the book. (It’s also beset with some hilarious scenes that had me hiding my face in my hands. I hope you like liquorice because it gets mentioned a lot…). 

However, whilst there is much to enjoy about this offbeat space opera, I felt that at times, the overarching storyline (Eva’s quest to locate her sister) and the ensuing twists that happen afterwards with The Fridge and “Proarkhe technology” – which is only loosely explained – were rushed. For a book that really puts its all into its vibrant world-building, and a heart-warming and funny main character, the pacing of the book especially towards the end was the main hindrance to me enjoying it as much as I could have.

Scenes that I felt should have had more emotional impact – like the ending with what it reveals and the (slight spoilers!) time-skip explanation – were rushed, whilst other parts which seemingly had little relevance to the overarching plot dragged on. Like a rollercoaster that speeds up and ends too quickly, I only wish that Valdes had made this novel longer or at least elaborated a bit more on some of the intriguing plot points and lore that she drops into conversation between characters or details in any exposition.

Overall view:
Chilling Effect is a quirky, fun-fuelled, space opera that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you like sci-fi wacky and offbeat, with alien romances, a human heart pumping away at its centre, and a protagonist with more charismatic gravitational pull than a black hole, you should definitely give this a try.

Chilling Effect can be bought all good book shops + online. 

*Thank you Orbit Books for posting me this copy in exchange for an honest review. 

Paladin’s Grace by T.Kingfisher

“Stephen’s god died a little after noon on the longest day of the year. […] It had never occurred to Stephen or any of the others that a god could die. Such things happened in mythology, not in real life”

Paladin’s Grace was a book I stumbled across – much like how Grace encounters Stephen early on in the novel – entirely by chance. I’d been riding on a high of playing a lot of fantasy ttrpg (tabletop rpgs), and wanted the chance to sink my teeth into a new fantasy book to pass the time.

And then, I found this. 

The premise of the book had me intrigued immediately before I even opened the first page, and then the first chapter hooked me entirely. Even for someone as agnostic as I am, I have a deep, abiding love of seeing how faith and pantheons of gods are depicted in fantasy worlds. I’ve seen gods disappearing in fantasy books, their magic ebbing from a broken world (R.S Ford’s A Demon in Silver is a good example of this), or fantasy books with no religion at all. But a god – the “Saint of Steel”, a god of barbarian-like, scarily precise, and holy killing machines – dying? Their followers left to pick up the pieces? This I had to read.

The book is engagingly written, a heady blend of romance, fantasy, intrigue, and mystery, such that I raced through it in less than 48hrs, my eyes practically glued to the page.

It follows Stephen – a paladin without a god, a towering man in chainmail who likes knitting in his spare time – and Grace – a talented perfumer with a wish to disappear from a distasteful past life – as they meet and, slowly, kindle a romance that is very much the heart of the story. Their bashful flirting and burgeoning sexual frustration for one another was an absolute joy to read, although perhaps clouded the ongoing plot (and trust me, there are a lot of subplots flying about) to uncover a potential murder the two find themselves embroiled in.

“Stephen had no idea how you complimented a woman on her ability to imitate someone in the throes of passion without sounding like an unrepentant lecher.”

That being said, whilst I love romance, and whilst this was maturely written with a lot of realistic bumps along the way (the protagonists are in their 30s) it was a little much for my taste, as I was also keenly interested in the other aspects of the book that Kingfisher merely touches on.

And boy, was there so much about this book that I wanted Kingfisher to explore further.

Whilst it plays off recognisable fantasy tropes and archetypes (paladins, priests, a pseudo-medieval town) that is not to say that the world-building is dull. My intrigue away from the main love story, I suppose, is testament to the rich world Kingfisher had created, and something I found myself fascinated with. What were these different sects worshipping different gods, each with different sorts of followers? Who were these other gods? So much history and lore seemed to burst from the page, and I am only sad that they didn’t have time to focus on it for longer. (If another book detailing these things ever were to appear, I would totally read it, just saying).

“Have you seen any of the severed heads that have turned up around the city?”
“Saw one.”
“I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the cause of death was decapitation.”

Notably, Kingfisher isn’t afraid to shy away from the deeper, darker aspects of human emotion. Suicide is mentioned, and both Stephen and Grace are individuals who are very much dealing with and recovering from their own emotional baggage and traumatic pasts – which are examined and explored with both tact and empathy. But there is a lightheartedness and humour to this book that adds to this, and the supporting characters help to add to the feeling of creating this real and vivid world. The author does a brilliant job at exploring the city through smells in particular, which effectively conjures and gives an interesting perspective to the world.

As one example, given that Grace is a master perfumer, albeit far less sinister than Patrick Suskind’s Jean-Baptiste in Perfume, there is an amusing segment when she contemplates the possibilities of bottling up human scent to capture the essence of Stephen (such are the depths of her immediate sexual longing over him). It is sections such as this, that add another element of humour and depth to the novel.

The character’s aren’t perfect, but clumsy, flawed, and real – although if you’re prone to intense bouts of second-hand embarrassment from watching characters stumble through social situations, perhaps find yourselves duly warned.

So, if you’re looking for another fantasy book fix during your time inside, filled with romance, and a dash of mystery and intrigue, I would heartily recommend this book.

The Gift of Foresight by Raven Knox

Life was almost perfect until he left them.
Will was a good man, torn and confused.
Alyss was bitter, hurt, and lonely.
Harriet could never see what she always knew was there.
They always loved each other.

Blurb of ‘The Gift of Foresight’

*[This is a sponsored Ad review]

The Gift of Foresight is an intriguing and, at times, moving debut novel by Raven Knox, published by Ghost and Ribbon. It follows a fractured family – Alyss, Will and their daughter Harriet – as they each explore and come to terms with the ripples caused by Will and Alyss’ divorce, an event which takes place at the start of the book in an emotionally devastating flashback scene.

This is a novel which deals with divorce and disability; two weighty topics that are rarely explored in literature in one narrative, especially from the perspective of a young, disabled teenage girl. Knox explores this with a thoughtful and at times poignant hand, and I am a firm believer that representation in novels is important in today’s age so this is particularly wonderful to see tackled. To deal with such messy and stigmatic topics such as these is something that Knox should take credit for exploring and basing her novel around.

As the arguable main character of this piece, Harriet is a perceptive and bright girl who tries to navigate the choppy emotionally fraught waters left in the wake of her parent’s divorce since Will (her father) walked out 10 years ago. It is made clear that she harbours hopes that they might get back together, a drive that influences and shapes her behaviour in this book. She is also blind. Whilst I would say this is not the main point upon which Knox focuses her novel, it is still hugely important and rears its head at particular chosen moments in the text where it is discussed. It also makes for a simultaneously heart wrenching and heart-wrenching final chapter in the book.

“If knowledge and foresight are too penetrating and deep, unify them with ease and sincerity”

Xun Kuang, Chinese Philosopher (a quote used in the foreword of the book)

Will and Alyss’ relationship is a little more difficult to track, with their scenes and conversations at times slipping into melodrama, but Knox manages to teeter her work on the side of believability when it comes to this divorced couple. As the reader, we are granted a unique view, seeing every facet of these characters from their arguments to their quieter, more emotive moments. Their respective personalities take shape as the novel progresses, and you understand more how they met and fell in love in flashback scenes and discussions with other characters, which adds more depth and plausibility to Harriet’s desire to see her parents back together.

However, at times the book has a jumbled narrative voice and perspective – especially since Harriet’s blindness is aptly described and then, at times, strangely forgotten (for instance, there are times that she can “see” certain things – a jarring point which meant I had to re-read sentences to figure out just whose perspective this related to).

Despite this, I feel that Harriet’s characterisation is one aspect of Knox’s writing that is particularly strong. She is shown to be a normal teenage girl, with hopes and dreams and fears, and comes across as headstrong and funny. She is loved in spite of her disability and not alienated or ostracised for it. This is a refreshing approach I have not seen depicted much in novels, and is a welcome inclusive addition, which does much to break down any stigma perhaps associated with this disability.

At its core, this book is about the raw, tangled, messier parts of human relationships and the emotions that come with it. Although a little heavy-handed in the message it tries to present, it should not diminish the message it focuses on. Family and the relationships are poignant, complex things, and The Gift of Foresight aptly captures this with its unique, emotional perspective.

About the book: 

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