Welcome to Act Two of Gideon the Ninth! Let’s dive right in, starting with some ancillary business.
If you want a shorthand reference to the different Houses, look at the skulls (they appear in descending order at the beginning of each act)
- The First House, House of the Emperor, is a complete skull with mandible and no adornment. It’s the House of the Lyctors and the residents of Canaan House — meaning Teacher and his assistant priests.
- The Second House skull wears a Spartan-style helmet, fitting for the House of the Cohort, God’s armies.
- The Third House skull has jewels in its eyes and accordingly, the Third is all flash, glamor, and wealth.
- The Fourth House skull wears a laurel crown; the Fourth House sends its children to the Cohort. They might be praised for their martial prowess, but essentially the House feeds the Emperor’s war machine, so much that its heir was born long after his father’s death, is 14, and feels bad that he’s not already in the Cohort.
- The Fifth House skull is harder to parse. It wears some sort of headband. The House itself is wealthy and powerful, but its strengths lie in its spirit magic, and the fact that its necromancer is a famous historian.
- The Sixth House skull holds a scroll in its jaw, and it’s all about scholarship.
- The Seventh, a rose in one eyehole, fitting because the Seventh House is big on beauty.
- The Eighth House Skull is blindfolded: blind obedience and orthodoxy.
- And the Ninth? The Ninth’s skull has no lower jaw; it’s stripped down and kind of crumbly (much like the House itself).
As the details start to accrue, I’ll make a handy chart and place it at the end of each installment, updated weekly. The Locked Tomb is a very confusing read; Tamsyn Muir asks a lot of readers, but rewards them lavishly if they stick around long enough to collect the payoff. It’s the least I can do to make references easier.
On to Act Two:
Notice that Gideon tends to meet the House members in pairs, and the pairings highlight the differences among them.
Gideon wakes on her first morning in Canaan House to find that Harrow has stolen the ring from out of her pocket and left her with instructions. Lots of instructions — mainly to wear the face paint and not speak with anyone. She freshens up and goes out to breakfast, where she meets Magnus Quinn, cavalier of the Fifth House, and “the awful teens” of the Fourth House. After breakfast, she goes exploring and finds a disused athletic facility and a hallway and locked door behind a tapestry. She’s interrupted by the sound of the three from the Third House, hides in the darkness out of habit, and observes the dynamics of the trio. Before they leave, Ianthe delivers an enigmatic warning, “I would not attract attention from the necromancer of the Third House” (p. 100).
- The notes that Harrow leaves for Gideon are hilarious. She knows her as well as she knows herself (more evidence of how enmeshed these two are). Harrow is an obnoxious jerk.
- Everything Gideon knows about the world beyond the Ninth House she’s learned from comics; therefore, she knows what a sink is, although it startles her, but a bathtub blows her mind.
- The entire world of the Nine Houses is a strange mix of ultra-advanced and regressive technologies. Witness: space shuttles that cross a solar system in an hour and sonic cleaners that exist alongside robe-wearing necromancers and cavaliers with swords.
- Ninth House soap is made of human fat. Gross. Life is terrible in the Ninth House.
- The skeletons catch Gideon’s attention because they’re so well-built. This is mentioned several times.
- Magnus, the “kind-faced older man” who introduces himself to Gideon is 32.
- Meme alert: The “awful teens” sotto voices are drawn from Charlie the Unicorn. Make of this what you will.
- Gideon has no idea what a pool is, or what it’s for. Did I mention life is awful in the Ninth?
- The mysterious hallway and door: the animal head is an herbivore’s, and I suspect it’s a cow (for reasons that won’t be apparent until Nona the Ninth but, when you see it, you’ll see it (p. 96). Gideon’s thought “Curious,” may be a callback to another locked door, this one in Alice in Wonderland.
Gideon returns to the cafeteria for lunch and makes the acquaintance of salad. Again, she admires the quality of the skeleton servitors and the craft with which they’ve been programed; it far exceeds the best efforts of the Ninth House and the Ninth is all about the bones. As she leaves, she meets Silas Octakiseron, the necromancer of the Eighth House, who is so offensive that Gideon is ready to fight his cavalier, Colum. Colum disappoints her by being polite. Stung by Silas’ rudeness, she runs into Dulcinea on a terrace. Dulcinea, alone and having sent her cavalier off on an errand, flirts with her and Gideon, being lonely and vulnerable, falls in, removing her sunglasses so that Dulcinea can see her eyes, and posing with her sword. When Dulcinea asks if she’s used to a heavier sword, Gideon is close to panic, but is saved when Protesilaus returns from his errand and says “It’s shut.”
- Gideon is halfway through a salad before she realizes it’s a salad. Ninth House [shakes head].
- Why does Silas’ reaction hit Gideon so hard? Because it’s a callback to everyone in the Ninth House who hated her. Muir is deft at drawing Gideon’s gallantry and likeability, but underneath it all, we recognize that she’s profoundly lonely. No one has ever loved Gideon (except Aiglamene, but Gideon doesn’t recognize her love as love). Which is likely why she’s susceptible to Dulcinea’s charms.
- “You’re not the first Ninth nun I’ve ever met” (p. 105). Hmmm. Where would a chronically-ill Seventh House heir ever meet a Ninth House nun?
- Dulcinea when Gideon takes off her glasses: “The eyes narrowed with intent, and for a moment the face was all business. There was something swift and cool in the blueness of those eyes, some deep intelligence, some sheer shameless depth and breadth of looking….’Lipochrome...recessive” (pp. 105-106). Stick a pin in this. For the record, lipochrome means “yellow.” Gideon’s eyes are golden.
- Dulcinea’s assessment of her own House: “The Seventh doesn’t do well with ghosts, you know. We offend them. We’re worrisome. The old division between body and spirit. We deal too much with the body...crystallising it in time...trapping it unnaturally” (p. 106).
- We think the big reveal in this chapter is that Dulcinea has figured out that Gideon is used to a heavier sword, ergo is not a real cavalier. That may be so, but it may not be.
- What has Protesilaus shut? We don’t know...yet.
Unnerved by her encounter with Dulcinea, Gideon spends two days training alone while Harrow sneaks in and out without speaking to her. Coronabeth of the Third House invites her to join the other cavaliers for sparring matches: “If Gideon had not been so lonely; if Gideon had not been so used to having a fighting partner, even one more used these days to battling rheumatism; if Coronabeth Tridentarius had not been so astonishingly hot” (p. 110) she would have refused. The cavaliers of the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Houses are already there. Gideon faces Magnus the Fifth and defeats him in three moves. Naberius the Third challenges her and out-duels her, winning the match, whereupon Gideon sucker-punches him. Naberius is outraged, but the Marta of the Second pronounces Naberius a better duellist, but Gideon a better fighter, and Jeannemary of the Fourth says, “That’s how I want to fight. I don’t want to spend all my time in show bouts. I want to fight like a real cavalier, as though my life’s on the line” (p. 121). All this admiration and valuing the practical over the showy does nothing to endear Naberius to Gideon. Gideon looks through the door and sees Harrow, who has watched the bout. Harrow turns and leaves without speaking.
- Harrow is trying to do everything by herself. This is a problem. Recall that Teacher told them explicitly in Act 1 that cavaliers and necromancers would have to work together. Yeah. Harrow paid no attention to him.
- Magnus tells stories about Isaac and Jeannemary’s childhood — it’s obvious he’s known the teens for a long time.
- Naberius sneers at Gideon’s offhand weapon (the knuckle knives). Marta doesn’t.
- Gideon has a bad habit of admiring her opponents until it’s almost too late.
- “But then he did something perfect. It was probably recorded in some shitty Seventh-style swordplay book as TWO CROWS DRINKING WATER or THE BOY STRANGLES THE GOOSE” (p. 119). I howled the first time I read this. Mel and Amy from the Locked Tomb Podcast see this as a lampoon of the post-Wheel of Time sword and sorcery convention of naming different sword moves with esoteric weird names, but I saw it as a callback to traditional martial arts, having spent years trying to do White Crane Spreads Its Wings and Snake Creeps Down properly. Mel and Amy are probably right. Whatever, it’s funny.
- Marta and Jeannemary’s approval only makes Naberius despise Gideon more. Which is only fair, because she had his number from the get-go. Given what we know of the Second and Fourth Houses, Gideon would fit right in in the Cohort.
- Gideon may think that Harrow is ignoring her completely, but she turns up to watch the bout. And Gideon notices. They’re hyperaware of each other.
Gideon recognizes the advantages of a vow of silence as she watches the other Houses and spends time with Dulcinea, until she realizes that Harrow hasn’t returned to their quarters in two nights. She searches and explores the wreck of Canaan House, reaching a lobby of some sort and hears voices below. She sneaks down and listens to Palamedes and Camilla of the Sixth House discussing the relative ages of parts of the building, until they see her. Camilla attacks before Palamedes calls her off and surprises Gideon by saying, “You’re here about Nonagesimus, aren’t you?” (p. 135). He tells her they found her blood “down there.” Gideon asks him to help her; with Camilla, he agrees. They descend a long ladder into a laboratory facility and, after a long look around, find Harrow encased in a bone. Gideon kicks it apart; Palamedes confirms that Harrow is exhausted and dehydrated, but nothing worse than that, and Gideon carries her out of the facility.
- Just above I mentioned hyperawareness: witness Gideon’s fantasy of being on the other side of the galaxy and Harrow reading of her heroism and admitting Turns out Griddle could swing a sword after all (p. 126). Who among us has not dreamt similarly about our nemeses?
- Gideon would love nothing more than to break into Harrow’s wardrobe “and do up all the buttons on her shirts, making sure that each button went into the hole above the one it was meant to go into,” but she can’t let herself not care. Instead she goes in search of her. For most of a whole day, which gives us a tour of Canaan House, a tour that will come in handy eventually. Nothing in these books is random or ornamental, I’m convinced.
- Camilla and Palamedes talking is so much less dysfunctional than Coronabeth, Ianthe and Naberius. Also, did you notice “Fiat lux!” (p. 131)? Let there be light. From the Book of Genesis and also about every third university’s motto. There is also a jewelry company. Whichever it refers to (I’ll bet it’s Genesis) there’s a memory, or an echo, of Latin that survives in the Sixth House. And finally, I’m not sure what to make of the different dates of the materials of the building, but it bothers Palamedes, whose specialty is psychometry, or the ability to discern details about people based on the things they’ve touched.
- Camilla is a swordswoman! The nerdly House can fight! And again Gideon is too busy admiring her style to react, at least at first. It almost gets her killed.
- When Palamedes tells Gideon that he found Harrow’s blood in the facility, “a very strange thing happened to Gideon Nav. She had already exhausted neurons, cortisol, and adrenaline, and now her body started moving before her head or her heart did” (p. 135). From this point on, Gideon is like a dog on point, and finding Harrow is her only objective. So much for the I hate you so much thing.
- “It is finished!” is written on an old whiteboard (p. 138). I have thoughts about this: first of all, it’s a reference to the penultimate words of Jesus during the crucifixion. What is finished? Well, in the New Testament, the sacrifice of Christ to redeem the fall of humanity is finished. So there’s that layer. But it can also signify the end of whatever the original lyctors were doing in the facility. Is this triumphant? Is it sacrificial? Do we know enough yet to tell?
- Palamedes also does “medical necromancy,” which allows him to diagnose Harrow’s condition.
- “I’m the greatest necromancer of my generation” (p. 144). Is this a Harry Potter reference? It feels like one. Although Palamedes says it only to get a rise out of Harrow.
Gideon and Harrow Have A Conversation, in which each clarifies terms for the other. Harrow reveals that she’s been mapping out Canaan House and counting doors. After asking Teacher for a key to the facility, she realizes that the facility on the other side of the locked hatch holds trials central to the process of becoming a lyctor. Since then, she’s been trying to solve one of the trials, but hasn’t been able to crack it. Instead, she’s lost 163 skeletons to something that smashes them to bits, but she’s prevented from seeing it. Gideon identifies a locked door Harrow hasn’t found (the one behind the tapestry), and Harrow agrees that Gideon will go back to the facility with her and start acting like a genuine cavalier.
- This is such an enjoyable chapter, as Harrow and Gideon actually communicate with a modicum of mutual respect for the first time.
- Is it possible that, knowing how dangerous Canaan House is and not trusting anyone else, Harrow’s imposed vow of silence is actually an attempt to keep Gideon safe?
- “A head start...is the only advantage one can claim by choice. My other advantage is in workforce” (pp. 147-148). Harrow takes her competitions seriously. Which is why she’s mapped the entire house and figured out the facility is used for necromantic challenges.
- Remember the declarations that come in threes? “I am your creature, gloom mistress. I serve you with fidelity as big as a mountain, penumbral lady….I am your sworn sword, night boss” (p. 151).
- Meme alert: “And you had better stop it with all this twilit princess garbage” (p. 152). The Legend of Zelda: Twilit Princess. Listen, I don’t make the rules; I just look up the references.
In the morning, Harrow and Gideon go back down to Laboratory 2, which is a 3-room suite called “Transference/Winnowing. Datacenter.” The main room opens on two others, one called “Response” and the other “Imaging.” In Imaging, Harrow lays her hand on a pedestal, where it’s immobilized, and the door to Response opens. She sends in skeletons and hears them destroyed but can’t see anything. Gideon watches as Harrow starts the test, and she sees a monstrous bone construct emerge from a cloud of steam, one that pulverizes Harrow’s skeletons. She repeats the skeleton-smashing test until Gideon trips the waiting skeleton and goes in herself to fight it. Harrow realizes that Gideon is the test (well, Gideon and Harrow’s ability to see through Gideon’s eyes). She passes out.
- The construct is designed to be a challenge and enticement for any cavalier. Gideon is no exception.
- This is the first time we really see how costly necromancy is, as Harrow bleeds profusely from the theorems.
- Gideon trips the skeleton when the door opens and goes in, saying “if you wanted a cavalier you could replace with skeletons, you should’ve kept Ortus” (p. 160). Once she’s in the chamber, Harrow cries out and Gideon staggers. Related? Yes. Because it happens again. And again. Until Harrow figures out what the test is asking for.
- “’Winnowing,’ she said. “I’m a fool. It wants the wheat from among the chaff [note the Biblical reference — Luke 3:17] — or the signal from the noise” [while there are many possible works this refers to, the most likely one is Neil Gaiman’s Signal to Noise about the apocalypse of 999 CE].
While Harrow rests and recovers, she and Gideon receive a formal invitation to a dinner party to celebrate the wedding anniversary of Magnus and Abigail of the Fifth House. Gideon convinces Harrow that they have to attend, both for tradition’s sake and to gather intel. The seating chart ensures that everyone will have a horrible time; Harrow’s misery makes Gideon enormously happy, and she really enjoys the food. We get snippets of conversation among the different Houses, most of which make little sense now but in retrospect will be important.
- When the teens slide the invitation under the door, Harrow says, “Give it to me. It might be a trap” (p. 166). More evidence of a thaw in the relationship — since when has Harrow been protective?
- Harrow has serious social anxiety, but Magnus and Abigail are lovely and unpretentious. Enjoy it while we can.
- Magnus: the king of Dad jokes. Second only to God (this will be clear later).
- We learn a few things about the different Houses (pp. 172-74). For instance,
- Pre-lyctoral records are housed in the Sixth House, where not even they look at them.
- Abigail found a pomegranate tree in the greenhouses (“the juicy part is the sarcostesta”) . Also, she’s really interested in those pre-lyctoral records.
- The Eighth House fasts during the day. Also they disapprove of medical intervention, evidenced by Silas’ horror that Ianthe was born by C-Section or something similar. He calls her birth “a wasted opportunity.” How weird — but make a note.
- Ianthe doesn’t believe in reflection or regret: “I don’t live alternate histories.”
- Judith was born in deep space and spent her “first nine months wrapped in house dirt.” We’re not told here that it’s Judith, but it’s not a spoiler (I don’t think). Remember the bit about Harrow not sitting on a packet of grave dirt on the shuttle? Apparently infant necromancers needs thanergy to survive.
- The Sixth House is academically regimented between specialization and duty.
- Naberius has great hair (and when I read about him “Werewolves of London” plays in the back of my mind): “His hair was so perfect that Gideon kept staring at it, mesmerised, hoping some specific bit of the ceiling would break down and squash it flat.”
- Poor Babs can’t catch a break as Ianthe puts him in his place again. And Jeannemary “stuck her awful courage to its sticking place” and indulges in some serious Gideon hero-worship (p. 175). The reference, of course, is from MacBeth, Act 1, Sc. 7, in the plotting of Duncan’s murder, and the image involves cocking a crossbow. Nothing ominous there.
- The dinner is delicious to Gideon, which is a first. “...getting full [was] a grim process of gruel and spoon and mouth that had to be done in order to maximise chances of not having her ass later kicked by Aiglamene in some dim room” (p. 175). The Ninth House — what a dive.
- Dulcinea tells Gideon, “I liked that dinner….It was useful” (p. 176). Stick a pin in that.
- She also musingly says to Gideon, “the Houses are arranged so badly . . . full of suspicion after a whole myriad of peaceable years. What do they compete for? The Emperor’s favour? What does that look like? What can they want? It’s not as though they haven’t all gotten fat off our Cohort prizes . . . mostly. I have been thinking about all that, lately, and the only conclusion I can come to is . . .” (p. 177). This will resonate later. Also, and this will make sense eventually, Palamedes interrupts to bring Dulcinea a cup of tea. Gideon realizes there’s more going on here than she guessed. Stick a pin here, too, but not for the reason you think.
Back in Response, Gideon tries to keep the bone construct off her. Harrow makes the connection, and guides Gideon in unpicking the theorems (spells) in an order that will disassemble the construct. The prize is a key. On the way back to the hatch, they find the jumbled and murdered bodies of Abigail and Magnus.
- Together they figure it out. While Harrow sees through Gideon’s eyes, she’s astonished to learn that Gideon can also see through Harrow’s — it’s a two-way street.
- “But for the love of the Emperor, Griddle,” she said gruffly, “you are something else with that sword” (p. 182). Recall chapter 12, and Gideon’s fantasy that Harrow would some day admire her? It just came true, and Gideon doesn’t know how to react.
- Abigail and Magnus’ deaths is awful, and doubly awful for Gideon, who sees one of the few people who’s ever been kind to her lying there dead.
Well, we know a little more about this world. Ten thousand years ago, something happened and the Necrolord Prime, who was human and became God, also became Emperor. We know that something called the Resurrection happened around the same time. God/the Emperor called eight necromancers and their cavaliers to become lyctors and gave them both power and eternal life. Over the millennia, some of the lyctors…I don’t know...faded away? Anyway, the Emperor needs more, and that’s why the heirs of the Houses are there with their cavaliers, to replenish the ranks.
Under the living area is the facility, a lab area reached by a locked hatch, where the keys to lyctorhood are hidden, literally, inside a series of tests. Each test teaches some aspect of lyctorhood. But it’s dangerous. The unfed ghosts of ten billion are down there, and the living offend them. Teacher tells Harrow and Harrow tells Gideon:
Down there resides the sum of all necromantic transgression…. The unperceivable howl of ten thousand million unfed ghosts who will hear each echoed footstep as defilement. They would not even be satisfied if they tore you apart. The space beyond that door is profoundly haunted in ways I cannot say, and by means you won’t understand; and you may die by violence, or you may simply lose your soul. (p. 152)
Don’t let Gideon’s response, “Surprise, my tenebrous overlord!...Ghosts and you might die is my middle name,” throw you. Things are going to get dark, and fast.
Descriptions taken from Muir’s appendices and Dramatis Personae. My comments in brackets.
The Second House:
Judith Deuteros (DEW-ter-oss): Necromancer, Rank of Captain in the Cohort.
Marta Dyas (DIE-ass – I’m sorry, I couldn’t come up with anything better): Cavalier, Rank of Lieutenant in the Cohort.
The Third House:
Coronabeth Tridentarius (Cor-OWN-a-beth Try-den-TAR-ee-us): Necromancer, Crown Princess of Ida
Ianthe Tridentarius (E-AHN-thay): Necromancer, Princess of Ida
Naberius Tern (Na-BEER-e-us): Cavalier [of the fabulous hair]
The Fourth House:
Isaac Tettares (Tett-AR-ez): Necromancer, Baron of Tisis
Jeannemary Chatur (JOHN-mair-ee Cha-TOUR): Cavalier, Knight of Tisis
The Fifth House:
Abigail Pent: Necromancer, Lady of Koniortos Court
Magnus Quinn: Cavalier, Seneschal of Koniortos Court
The Sixth House:
Palamedes Sextus (Pal-AM-a-dees SEX-tus): Necromancer, Master Warden of the Library
Camilla Hect (HEKT). To rhyme with “wrecked”: Cavalier, Warden’s Hand of the Library
The Seventh House: Joy of the Emperor, the Rose Unblown
Dulcinea Septimus (Dul-sin-AY-a SEPT-i-mus):
Protesilaus Ebdoma (Prot-eh-sil-OW-us EBB-do-mah): Cavalier, Knight of Rhodes
The Eighth House:
Silas Octakiseron (Ock-ta-KISS-er-on): Necromancer, Master Templar of the White Glass
Colum Asht (COL-um): Cavalier, Templar of the White Glass
[The Eighth House is called “the Forgiving House,” which is hilarious given that Silas is a terminal bigot.]
Lordy, there are podcasts! Podcasts wherein fans share their reader reactions and theories of the case. I’ve listened to much of the Locked Tomb podcast and can report that it’s entertaining. I have not yet listened to any of the others, but if you want to venture forth, here they are:
The Locked Tomb Podcast
One Flesh, One End Podcast
The Unlocked Tomb Podcast
Reddit Nota bene: if you value suspense, you’ll want to be wary digging around in the subreddits, because, although the work of extremely smart readers is obvious, it’s like shark-filled waters, if by sharks you mean spoilers.
Gideon the Ninth, Act 1
Introduction to The Locked Tomb