Also file under: shameless fangirling
I finished reading Tamsyn Muir’s electrifying debut novel last weekend and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. (Now I’m reading the sequel, HARROW THE NINTH, and am utterly confused, yet can’t stop thinking about it either.)
GIDEON is…a lot, but in a good way. “Lesbian necromancers in space” only scratches the surface. Kirkus described it as a mash-up of science fiction, fantasy, gothic horror, and party-house mystery. The author herself, whose interviews and articles are hilarious, darkly self-deprecating, and instantly recognizable once you’ve read GIDEON, has described it as “[blurring] the boundaries of murder mystery, psychological thriller, girl-leaves-home Bildungsroman, and Sports Story (so long as for ‘sports’ you read ‘swords’).”
I was hooked from the first sentence.
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.Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth
How can you not love Gideon and her dirty magazines?
But this is not a review, because I’m late to the goth house party (GIDEON was released in September 2019) and it’s been thoroughly reviewed, hyped, and memed. I want to talk about what reading GIDEON meant to me as an older woman-desiring woman (I’m bi) who came out later in life. And I want to talk about what GIDEON means to me as a writer of speculative fiction.
Mostly, I’m about to flail a lot about how great it is, though. I know there has been controversy around this book, and I know some folks felt it wasn’t queer enough, and I’ll take this opportunity to say that your feelings are valid but I don’t share them.
WARNING: This post contains spoilers for GIDEON THE NINTH and possibly also for HARROW THE NINTH, so if you haven’t read the books, what are you doing? Go read them.
The balm of queer abandon
This book delighted me because it holds nothing back. It’s a tropey, will-they-won’t-they enemies-to-friends-to-maybe-lovers (still obsessively wondering what happened after that fade-to-black pool scene) gay as fuck ghost adventure. There’s a dark joy and defiance that shines through every word.
(Not just the queer parts; I spent the first few chapters marveling at Muir’s adept and prolific use of adverbs and gorgeous, often intricate prose. As a writer, I try to avoid adverbs and write simply, but this book glories in its gorgeousness and I love it.
The lamps….explosively birthed malform shadow all around. The shades of the Ninth were deep and shifty; they were bruise-coloured and cold. In these surrounds, Gideon rewarded herself with a little plastic bag of porridge. It tasted gorgeously grey and horrible.Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth
Gorgeously grey and horrible. Is it me or did she just…express her whole aesthetic for the book/trilogy in a description of bagged porridge?)
Notably, the book contains absolutely no trace of homophobia. In Muir’s universe, the characters’ peers would be more concerned about the propriety of a necromancer/cavalier relationship between the titular Gideon and her ghoulfriend Harrow than what kind of genitals the necromancer and cavalier happen to have. The novel is not ABOUT them being lesbians. And yet they clearly hate to love/love to hate each other, and the story is built around their tension and their slow-burn trust for each other. The main characters are not saints and their relationship is not ideal; far from it. As such, imperfect and tropey and fucked up, it normalizes a central f/f relationship and gives it a weight usually reserved for het romance. It fed my weary old queer heart in a way I didn’t know I needed until I read it.
The boldness of GIDEON confronted me at every turn, starting with the premise. Lesbian necromancers…IN SPAAAAACE. Like she just threw in everything she thought would be cool to have in a book. As she herself says, “I wrote this book for my seventeen-year-old self.” And mine. They have spaceships? Awesome. They have walking skeletons who do all their chores? Double awesome. Everything is haunted? Hell yes. Gideon is a foul-mouthed shades-wearing jock with a heart of gold? Yes please. Harrow is a genius megabitch with a dark purpose and an even darker secret trauma? Bring it.
In short, and I hesitate to say it because it’s a bit inappropos considering the woman-focused subject matter, it is BALLSY AS HELL. But that’s what I kept thinking while reading it. Also, “balls to the wall.” Lots of gonads. It’s exhilarating.
On authorial courage
Talking about courage in relation to queer representation almost sounds like a platitude in this day and age. But that’s the thing of it: in this day and age. I don’t think a book like GIDEON could have made it to the bestseller lists a few decades ago. Even a decade ago, when I first started to come out, just talking about queer desire was a terrifying act of transgression. When I was coming of age, it was unthinkable. (When I started college, I didn’t even understand that bisexuality existed as an identity I could claim. It’s hard to imagine now, but I owe a lot to the people I knew who had more courage than me and identified as bi in those times. They showed me how to be myself.)
I wrote a first draft back in the ‘Oughts of a post-apocalyptic/cyberpunk novel that centered an f/f relationship and then abandoned it because I didn’t think anyone would want to read it. I’m not sure of the exact year but I think that was around 2006. It was a different time to be a not-all-that-young baby queer in America. George W. Bush was still President, gay marriage was illegal on a national level and in my progressive state, and I didn’t have much hope that any of that would change. In fact, California voters had passed a ballot initiative, Proposition 22, that prohibited same-sex marriage just six years earlier. Two years later, in 2008, they would pass Proposition 8 as an end-run against a California Supreme Court ruling that Proposition 22 violated same-sex couples’ rights under the state constitution. It would be another 9 years until the watershed Supreme Court ruling on marriage rights.
It’s still hard to believe that Obergefell v. Hodges came down only five years ago this July. I mean, 2020 has lasted decades longer than that already.
It’s easy to get lost in how chaotic and apocalyptic things feel right now, especially with the political party in power making it a priority to chisel away at our hard-won rights. But in fact, things have gotten better–a lot better–despite the regressive forces trying to drag us back to the 20th century.
Because of how far we’ve come from the world I grew up in, there’s still a poignant wistfulness I feel when I read books that are unapologetically queer, the kind of books I wanted to read (and write) when I was struggling with my own sexuality. Another book that gave me similar feels this year is THE UNSPOKEN NAME by A.K. Larkwood; if you liked GIDEON you should check this one out too.
In this wistfulness, I sold GIDEON’s courage a bit short. Until I looked her up, I assumed Tamsyn Muir must be much younger than me, a member of a generation raised in a world that had begun to recognize and legitimatize non-heterosexual relationships. (This is NOT to minimize the ways that prejudice impacts LGBTIAQ+ people now, because it absolutely does. But in 2006, I never would have dreamed of putting “bi/pan” in my author Twitter profile.)
But no. Muir is only a few years my junior. When I was researching this post, I came upon an interview with her in which she reveals her own experience with growing up as a lesbian in the 90’s.
I grew up in a fairly conservative community with the shadows of lesbian family deaths and trauma hanging over me….But I knew I was gay by the time the millennium turned, and the late nineties were more gruesome to young queers than I think we remember. I also came out at school, and it was terrible, and the one time I shot my mouth in response to being bullied I got the absolute shit kicked out of me — the teacher had left the room briefly, and everyone in my class watched as I got my head rammed into my desk for like a minute. There were kids in there I’d known since I was eight years old. Nobody said a word during, nobody moved, nobody said a word to me after. And I didn’t say a goddamned word about it to anyone, because I had my pride, and probably also a minor concussion.
What this has to do with being a creative lesbian woman is that I was not creative in public, is what I am saying. I wrote a bit of public-consumption poetry for the school magazine. I went online and I wrote, a lot, and I wasn’t even queer there. I was terribly frightened. I only wrote lesbian stories in a coven of other queer girls behind locked Livejournal walls. It would be years before I wrote f/f publicly in fanfiction, and it took me until 2015 to submit an actual lesbian story for publication.Three Crows Magazine, Interview with Tamsyn Muir, February 22, 2020
Tamsyn Muir isn’t of a generation who grew up with more freedom than me, but she does have more courage than I do. She wrote a book for her 17-year-old self and took herself seriously enough to publish it. AND IT’S AMAZING.
I supposed I could feel envious about that, but instead I feel inspired to take more risks as an artist. Inspired to write more joyfully, use more adverbs, center more queer characters, lean into my favorite tropes, be weird and genre-busting, and maybe even revisit my 2006 manuscript. I’m so grateful that authors braver than me are blazing the trail, just as queer people braver than me cleared my path to understand my sexual identity.
Honestly, the more I read about Muir, the more I find myself fangirling over her in the way one does when one finds commonalities with someone they already admire. Like me, Muir is an “elder millenial” who got her start writing fanfiction. She has been very open about that (even to her detriment) and it shows in the tropes she leans into. She’s vocal and open about her mental health struggles. She has an unholy love of internet memes.
She also namechecks the best game I’ve ever played, Disco Elysium, and lists Dorothy Sayers, my absolute favorite classic mystery author, as an influence, and I just… *heart eyes* (I think that basically confirms my suspicion that my favorite secondary character in GIDEON, Palamedes the Sixth, is a spiritual cousin to Peter Wimsey.) She has EXCELLENT TASTE, is what I’m saying.
Write for love. Break the rules.
Here’s my first impression after I finished GIDEON:
Gorgeous, distinctive, unashamed, gory, horrifying, dramatic. The kind of book one finishes with a sigh and thinks “I can never be that good.” I think the thing I love the most about GIDEON is the joy of it. A funny thing to say about a dark gothy book all about…worshiping death, necromancers, and ritual suicide pacts, but Muir’s joy shows through in every word. A virtuoso. She clearly had a blast writing this book. “One flesh, one end, bitch.” “That’s what she said.”…Even the notes are hilarious…
Muir’s success says do what you love, do it with joy and no apologies. Do it balls to the wall and don’t hold back, not adverbs, not killing everyone with gusto, not sexual tension you could cut with a knife, not NEVER GETTING THEM TOGETHER (well…that pool scene.) Not incredibly badass lesbians without enforced heterosexuality. But also deep epigenetic trauma–the Ninth House is a deeply fucked-up place to grow up….and expert, fascinating, memorable worldbuilding.My writing journal, August 17, 2020
And as Muir herself has said:
I want people to realise there are no boundaries. I wrote a murder mystery science-fantasy set in the middle of a will-they won’t-they rapprochement between two human beings who have been terribly hurt by the world. At times it’s structured like a romance novel—then like a horror story—then like a coming-of-age story—then a murder mystery. It’s SFF by way of Final Fantasy, Phoenix Wright and Peter Høeg. I’m sure plenty of people will put it down saying “Wow, if we have to have more of that, then not by Tamsyn Muir, whom I hope goes back to any other career,” but what I want them to say is—“Wait, you can do that in science fiction and fantasy?? Can I do that? I thought I wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
…Reflect everything you are in your work, not just the things you think are fit for public consumption.The Fantasy Inn, An Interview with Tamsyn Muir, August 28, 2019
Write what you love with joy and no apologies. (And memes, if you want to.) That’s my takeaway from this gorgeous, heartbreaking, joyous, exasperating book and series. So thank you, Tamsyn Muir, for forging a path and modeling ballsiness for me, and I can’t wait to read everything else you write.