Author Tamsyn Muir Conjures Up a Gothic Space Opera in ‘Gideon’

Adam Gravano


Having grown up as a kid who watched his family's VHS copy of The Addams Family until I almost wore out the tape, a draw to horror fiction and the gothic in general is probably a bit natural. It's terminal, you could say, if you wanted to amplify the morbidity. Being thrust a copy of a book set in a gothic mansion in a universe crammed with necromancers meant, by default, that I was game for reading it.


Author Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth falls in the uncanny valley between science fiction and fantasy. The presence of magic, in the form of necromancy, and an abundance of advanced technology few, if any, seem to know how to manipulate or understand places the universe at this interstice. It's a sort of goth space opera that couples magic with sufficiently advanced technology that few seem to understand — science that may as well be magic, and thus goes unexplained (it almost feels like a nod toward Arthur C. Clarke).


In the first few chapters, Gideon the Ninth does not appear to be the story it will become. “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, shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth,” does not suggest what is to come. In particular, this does not suggest that Gideon will come to embrace the Ninth House and fail in her escape. And this pattern of the reader doubling back from false foreshadowing will continue for the rest of the book, not just when Gideon fails in her escape attempt because of Harrow's sabotage.


In classic gothic fashion, though, this is not the only time the narration will provide the reader a false lead, albeit it is the earliest. In the context of the murders that happen later in the tale, this provides a most welcome fit of speculation from the reader — and despite the text inhabiting a fantasy universe, the false leads and dead-ends mimic those that are well known to crime readers. As Constance Grady stated in Vox, “Muir lets the plot unfold in the background when you're not looking, and she lets her characters do the driving.” Of course, the plot is not just unfolding: it's twisting and curving and doubling back.



Of course, well-wrought suspense will keep many a reader's attention, but of particular fun is the lighthearted voice of the titular character. Gideon is a trash-talking treasure. Not just when comparing Harrow to a “butt-touched nun,” either. Grady describing the dichotomy between the “sweet kid” Gideon and a darker, brooding, driven Harrow is something that will appear more obviously to the reader.


The reader might notice, though, as Locus reviewers do, that the relationship between Harrow and Gideon develops along seriously unhealthy outlines, to the point where: “The ending makes me question whether the book understands how much and in which specific ways that relationship is fucked up, the adversarial abusiveness and weird co-dependence of it all. And because much of the novel is a breezy, punchy, ir­reverent, gothic necromantic adventure (in space!), the impact of the weird squickiness is dispersed until the very closing pages.”


This is a valid criticism construction of the relationship between Harrow and Gideon in specific — but also a significant part of the world built for the novel (the implications of which do not appear until the final stages of the plot). The years of sabotage and attempts at murder, or at least abusive pranks, topped off by blackmail and trickery to press Gideon into a competition/training exercise to create the next generation of elite imperial soldiers.


This brings us to the world building of the novel outside of the gothic mansion or the Ninth's monastic fortress of Drearbruh. From what the reader sees of it, the empire is in need of people with necromantic talents, as well as their cavaliers, but has no means of reliably producing them independent of the houses and training them in a safe setting. They go through a testing process of a seemingly artisinal capacity. Much like the technology in the book, which seems to have been displaced and misunderstood, the science of personnel development and management in this universe long ago fell by the wayside.



Despite the ostracism of the Ninth House from its compatriots, these facts shine through for the reader. One might think of the fact that Harrow dresses and decorates like she's trying too hard to impress Morticia Addams is quite gothic; one might even think the gothic character set and atmosphere are intensified by the consumptive princess striving for a “beautiful death” all the while in a dangerous haunted mansion, or, for that matter, by the twins slowly eating their swordsman; but all of this, and more, encapsulated within a dying empire fueled by dark magic may seem to be a step that's almost too far — almost. It's a refreshing environmental change of pace, and its completion and consistency will astonish the reader. Even if there is an absence of details on the workings of the empire, this can safely be attributed to the isolation of the Ninth and the narration's focus on this benighted house.


While our friends at Locus might find this to be a debut that, like so many (if not all) others did not live up to its hype despite being a fun read, I heartily disagree. I earnestly anticipate the arrival of Harrow the Ninth and highly recommend Gideon to anyone looking for an offbeat adventure that defies our expectations of speculative fiction.


Author Bio:


Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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