The hype for Tamsyn Muir’s debut, Gideon the Ninth, started early. (Look at that cover. Enough said.) Now that Gideon has made her blood-spattered, metal as all hell debut, we talked to Muir about necromancy, the surprising influence of boarding school stories and what comes next.
Did any real-life muses who inspired the characters of Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus? Your characters are composed of such complex layers that I have to wonder if you encountered some real-life magical swordswomen in your travels.
God, I wish! No, Gideon and Harrow are not real people, except I guess in that every character an author writes is to some extent built from bits of people she’s met. I do think Gideon, more than Harrow, shares some rudimentary DNA with people I have known: my swords adviser for the book in particular, who I know thankfully finds that a compliment rather than anything else. They’re not even particularly me, although each of them shares a couple of my bad habits. Gideon’s love of dick jokes is, sorry to say, inherited from her creator, and Harrow has picked up one or two quirks that won’t really become apparent until book two.
“The problem with necromancy (I mean, there’s a lot of problems with necromancy, but).”
What is your favorite genre to read? What drew you to write a book that encompasses the genres of dark fantasy and space opera?
Early 20th-century girls’ boarding school stories. This isn’t a joke. When I am left entirely to my own devices, that is the genre I always find my way back to. There is a connection, in that my very earliest concepts for Gideon actually had it as much more of a classic school story, albeit a grim space school with bones and blood, and that’s what I’m acknowledging early on in the book when some of the characters are also expecting a classic school story and are disappointed not to get one. I do love both dark fantasy and space opera, but I didn’t start out by picking two genres and trying to splice them together. It was the story that gave me the genres, not the other way round. Gideon had to be dark fantasy because it needed to have both swords and necromancy, and it had to be space opera for plot reasons that I can’t really talk about yet.
This is your debut novel, and it’s bone-chillingly haunting, beautiful and funny at all the right moments. What places and times would you like to travel to through your fiction going forward?
Thank you so much! And, wow, that’s a big question. I’m more interested in places than times. I don’t have a particular urge to write a book set in a specific period of history, for example. Time is important to Gideon, but it’s not so much time when as time how long, if that makes any sense at all. On the other hand, there are a couple of places I very definitely want to visit. I’ve already written a short story set in my native New Zealand, “The Woman in the Hill,” which came out back in 2015, but I have nowhere near exhausted the possibilities of NZ as a setting and I’d love to return to it. And I also want to write something set in England, where I’ve lived for the last five years, because . . . well, there’s a very specific story I want to tell and I’ve come to the conclusion it can only be told in England. I hope that’s cryptic enough for you.
Let’s talk necromancy. What inspired your special brand of the craft present here, where humans are the puppet masters or colleagues of the undead?
The problem with necromancy (I mean, there are a lot of problems with necromancy, but) is that a lot of the time it doesn’t go any further than “raising the dead.” That’s not actually something my story needs to happen—in fact there is only one character in the whole book who can literally bring dead people back to life, and he doesn’t do it any more. Harrow’s specialty is skeleton-raising, but even she’s not raising the dead in a traditional sense—she’s building puppets or constructs that follow her orders and she’s just using bone to do it. Harrow’s skeletons are really more like robots she assembles on the spot out of human parts.
I knew from very early on that I wanted a really broad conception of necromancy, so my magic-using characters could do a whole lot of different things while still counting as necromancers. I guess I may have been partly inspired by Diablo II, where the Necromancer can do everything from flinging bones around to making some monsters hate other monsters. But again, it was a matter of thinking first “What do people in my story need to be able to do,” and then building a system that made all of those things possible within some kind of semi-coherent framework.
I also wanted to touch on the meticulous level of detail in your naming conventions of settings and people. Was this a deliberate move to incorporate numerology in addition to necromancy and the occult?
Here is a terrible confession: at one very early stage in writing the book, I hit on the idea that every character’s name should have the right number of syllables to match their House. This worked great for, like, the Fourth and Fifth Houses. It was just about manageable for the Second House. It was totally horrific for the Ninth House. And which House is the most important one in the book? Oh yeah, huh, the . . . Ninth House. An afternoon’s brainstorming of nine-syllable names, which ended up with me just trying to cram in extra syllables anywhere I could, made clear this was not going to work. Harrowhark Nonagesimus is still only eight syllables!!
The number-themed names were a way to keep my beloved gimmick, that you should be able to tell someone’s House just by looking at their name, while making my life slightly easier. Although, as it turned out, not that much easier, because I still ended up stuck for suitable words. I thought I couldn’t use “Sextus” because it had “Sex” in it, until a friend convinced me to just roll with that and turn it into a joke.
Your novel incorporates a romantic subplot as well as adventure and intrigue. When writing, did you craft the structure of your novel as a thriller, or did you always suspect that Gideon might find some romance along the way?
You know, I’m so glad you mentioned that, because while I would definitely not characterize Gideon the Ninth as a romance, its romantic elements are incredibly important to the whole thing. Gideon and Harrow’s romantic feelings for various people are crucial to the story, and have been ever since I thought it up. It wasn’t that I started writing a thriller and then thought “Hmm, actually, what if the main character had a crush . . .” The book is in a very real sense about who feels what about whom. It’s just hard for them to work out what those feelings are, because they keep having to fight duels and solve bone puzzles instead of actually talking about anything. Insert joke here about solving bone puzzles.
The contest for the Lyctorhood displays the greed for power at its worst. Did you see this as commentary on the state of the world today, or was there a more medieval inspiration for the setting and characters?
Wow, I hadn’t even thought of a medieval connection! I think that stories are good for showing humans at their best and at their worst, and there’s a pretty good argument that we’re at our very worst when power is involved. But I hope that no one in Gideon comes across as a straightforwardly evil person. Everyone who makes a bad decision during the book—and almost everyone makes at least one bad decision during the book—does so because they’re afraid, or proud, or paranoid, or desperate, or they feel they’ve been lied to or betrayed or somehow mistreated. Often when we want power what we actually want is safety. We want to feel we have control over our own lives and nothing can hurt us, and building a big castle to live in can seem like the best way to secure that.
“Gideon’s not cut out to be a lone wolf; she needs to be part of something bigger than herself.”
Gideon’s origin story brings to light the trauma of losing a family and orphanhood, as well as the joy of a found/chosen family. She’s a true survivor, but also craves the basic human needs of companionship and belonging. Concerning Gideon and Harrow’s temporary “family” of Lyctorhood-competitors, who was your favorite to write? Do you map out the characters’ traits and actions from the start, or do you see where the writing takes you and them?
One of Gideon’s problems, as you correctly point out, is that although she’s a survivor, she’s not a sole survivor. Gideon’s not cut out to be a lone wolf; she needs to be part of something bigger than herself, which is why the dream that’s kept her going all this time is being a hero in the Cohort rather than some kind of solitary swordmaster.
I enjoyed writing every single one of her temporary allies, because generally I can’t write a character unless I find a way of enjoying them. Isaac and Jeannemary, the Fourth House teens, were a lot of fun, and I’m extremely grateful to my editor Carl Engle-Laird for letting me keep their trick of talking in a very small font, which I was worried wouldn’t survive into the book. I also have a soft spot for poor, grizzled, long-suffering Colum Asht, a man who has been dealt a terrible hand and plays it grimly. But I think my favorite non-Ninth character to write has to be Camilla Hect. Camilla is not an expressive or an exuberant character, and operating within her incredibly limited range (watching impassively; stabbing people; rolling her eyes heavenward behind her necromancer) was always a source of deep joy to me. Oh, and also Teacher, who is literally my favorite character in the book.
The work of actually mapping out each character was made easier by the fact that in this book each character does emblematically represent some core aspect of their House: the Second House pair are basically as Second House as it is possible to be, and so on. No one is a bizarre outlier, except maybe Gideon. So having designed the Houses, it was really just a matter of thinking “what ways might people brought up in this House be likely to turn out?” For example, the Third House loves money, parties and being popular, which can produce a charismatic babe with great hair (Corona) OR a sneaky, double-dealing power-broker (Ianthe).
Gideon’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes was one of my favorite aspects of this book. Did you always intend to write Gideon as an outcast? Or was there a point in your process where she was in better circumstances starting out?
Gideon has always been on the bottom of the heap. Her childhood was just complete shit—you find out a bit more about it from another angle in book two and it’s if anything even shittier. She had a Bad Time. To be fair, no one in the Ninth House had a good childhood, but I needed to make very clear from the start that Drearburh is not a place Gideon associates with rosy memories and happy songs. If it had been, a lot of the choices she has to make later in the book would have become much easier.
Do you anticipate any House characters making an appearance for Halloween? Who would you dress up as if given the opportunity? What House would you see yourself in?
To my completely horrified delight, more than one person has already donned Ninth House robes and paint. At WorldCon in Dublin I got a very excited text from a friend during the evening disco, saying “There’s a Gideon in the middle of the dance floor!!” and there’s been a couple of incredible cosplays on Twitter.
I’m not sure any of the other Houses would work quite as well as Halloween costumes, although I confess I would love to see someone rock the Second House white-and-red.
I personally think I’m not allowed to be in any of the Houses because they are all cool and I am lame, but I’d probably end up in the Ninth myself, alas. You’d find me haplessly tripping over the skeletons, or hiding in a crypt niche eating Toffee Pops I procured on the black market somehow.
“Gideon spends about as much time thinking about being gay as she does thinking about being ginger.”
Gideon’s sexual identity is introduced to readers early on and is displayed positively throughout the narrative. What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading your book?
I’ve already got a very funny mixture of reactions to Gideon’s sexuality in early impressions of the book. Some of my readers are unhappy that I don’t make a bigger deal of it—they want Gideon’s lesbianism to be a big thing, a topic that gets discussed and that Gideon herself spends a lot of time thinking about or emphasizing. And then other people have specifically reached out to tell me how much they liked her sexuality not being a big thing; Gideon spends about as much time thinking about being gay as she does thinking about being ginger.
I’ve had the luxury of being able to write a world with no homophobia, a world where no one’s going to call Gideon names or tell her there’s something wrong with her because she likes girls, and so it’s just not something she ever needs to think about. If I’d given her lots of internal monologues about her own gayness, it would have been presupposing a level of resistance to that idea that doesn’t exist in the book.
What I really wanted was to write a wlw book where its lesbian credentials were not based on a lot of the stuff I had to read as a kid, i.e. lesbianism characterized as suffering or one single couple shacking up and nobody else is queer. I genuinely think there is nothing wrong with writing wlw suffering (it exists; we all have to exorcise those ghosts) but I wanted to write queerness more how it was with me and my community when I was in my early twenties (to be honest, the gay credentials in my book lie in there being two enmeshed girls who aren’t hooking up but have such an entangled relationship that you wish they would and stop ruining each other’s relationships, and girls obsessed with older girls in an unrequited love affair, and girls obsessed with older girls in a possibly actually requited love affair, etc., etc., everyone goes home to watch “The L Word”).
Obviously, Gideon would be triumphantly smug if reading about her incredible biceps helped anyone discover that they, too, were gay, so if you read my book and realize you’re gay please don’t tell Gideon, she will be insufferable. Having another baby butch in the book admire her guns was bad enough.
What’s next for you and your writing? The book ends on a devastating cliffhanger (I won’t spoil anything here!), and I’m sure readers would love to know what’s in the pipeline for you, Gideon and Harrow.
Well, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that what’s next for Harrow is book two, since it’s called Harrow the Ninth. It’s already written and in production—I got some first page layouts to look at just the other day— and scheduled for a Summer 2020 release, as far as I know. Book three, on the other hand, I haven’t even started writing yet. I have a novella I’m writing for Subterranean Press at the moment, about a princess and a tower, and then my calendar for October says in big block letters “START BOOK 3.” So that should keep me occupied into 2020, I think.
After that there’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline, but I don’t want to spill any beans just yet. I’m writing a narrative game project for Fogbank Entertainment, which is giving me a crash course in a completely different way of approaching the business of telling a story, and I have plans for at least two more novels that have nothing to do with the Nine Houses. Much fewer bones in these, I promise. I’m pretty confident I’ve already hit Peak Bone.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Gideon the Ninth.
Author photo by Vicki Bailey of VHBPhotography.