Warning: some of my problems with this book are with the ending, so I’m going to start dropping spoilers after a couple of prefatory paragraphs.
Charles Stross described Gideon the Ninth as “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” I read it today and am left profoundly dissatisfied. For one thing, there’s very little “in space”, or exploration of scale of the wider setting. The nine Houses appear to be planets, possibly within a single solar system, but that has absolutely no relevance. They could have been nine countries, or nine states, or nine cities, or nine areas in one city, and nothing about this book would have needed to change. The main plot takes place in a single mansion on an Earth-like planet. (The final scene is on a spaceship, so the sequels may do a better job of expanding the setting.)
Harrow is goth lesbian Hermione Granger, which is awesome. Necromancy is as well explained and makes as much sense as magic in Harry Potter, which is less awesome. It feels more systematized, so I would believe that the author knows exactly how things work, but having umpteen intricately different ways necromancy works gets in the way of communicating that system to this reader.
A disabled person is the villain, and her motivation is that she suffers from a chronic illness. Yep, that’s right; living with her disability turns her from someone described as “the very best of all of us […] the most humane, the most resilient […] with the most capacity for kindness” into a callous multiple murderer. Great representation there.
Once we learn what Lyctors really are the entire plot ceases to make sense. The Emperor Undying needs more Lyctors, to fight “things out there that even death cannot keep down,” but becoming a Lyctor involves merging two souls so he “wanted only those who had discovered the cost and were willing to pay it in the full knowledge of what it would entail.” A moral person might take pairs of candidates, weed out the unstable personalities, get informed consent from both partners, and tell them the process. An evil person might take all the candidates, tell them about the process, and let matters shake out. He sets up a competition designed to conceal the truth as long as possible and structured so that the most likely outcome is a single ruthless necromancer discovering the process and sacrificing someone else’s life for the powerup, regardless of whether the donor soul was willing to pay the cost. This is inefficient and counterproductive regardless of whether the Emperor is telling the truth about his desire to avoid sacrificing unwilling people.
But I’ll definitely read the next book, because goth lesbian Hermione Granger.