"The author is clearly insane" - which is why we love "Gideon the Ninth"

Adrian Liang on September 09, 2019

Two books have leaped out this year as brave, bright, and sharply idiosyncratic: Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth (available September 10) and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire.

Described by other talented authors as “crackling,” “pulpy,” “disturbing and delightful,” and “goofy and gleaming,” Gideon the Ninth takes a few chapters to reveal the people whom you’ll soon care about, though the action moves smartly along as the dramatis personae take the stage. And once mysterious monsters start killing off the book’s necromancers and their sword-swinging cavaliers, you’ll be all in.

I spoke with Tamsyn Muir a few months ago in New York about Gideon the Ninth, her choice of necromancy as her magic system, and why it may or may not be a good idea to wear aviator sunglasses while being introduced to the most powerful families in the universe.

Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: When people have told me about your new book, Gideon the Ninth, they’ve described it as “lesbian necromancers in space.” But how do you describe it?

Tamsyn Muir: I think that if I had to sum it up in one encapsulating sentence, it would probably be: “A swordswoman and her nemesis have a necromantic trial to become God’s bodyguards.” That’s it. That’s the whole book, which adds on to the “lesbian necromancers in space,” but that’s the thrust rather than the setup.

It was terribly fun to read.

Thank you!

Was it terribly fun to write?

Absolutely, in every single way. I think it took me about nine months, beginning to end, to write it. I was working six days a week, [writing this during] my day off. This was my fun time. I knew the story from the outset, and I don’t think I ever stalled in the middle or freaked out or didn’t know where to go. It was a really fun book to write, and it’s going to be the first of three.

How far out have you figured out what’s happening in the other two books?

Pretty much every single thing. I have always known the whole plot to all three books—which is nice because I know that not every [writer] is in the same position. Every single book feeds into each other. It’s a big, overarching story. Everything that happens in every single book matters in the next one.

Often when books are described as “epic”—and in this case your book is being described as an epic science fantasy—it means that there are a lot of world-building details crammed onto the page. But it didn’t feel that way with your book. I felt like you were revealing the world as the action progressed. How did you get to that point of the perfect balance between world-building and action?

I didn’t have much time to write this book—again, I was working six days a week—so I could not do what I know a lot of people love to do, which is sit down and fill notebooks and notebooks about their world and the people who inhabit it and what everybody’s wearing, what everybody’s eating. I didn’t have that time, so I decided to world-build just by writing the book. The reason why you are learning everything you need to know at certain times is because I was discovering that same information. What was really important to me was the story and the characters, but the parts of the world that usually you write down in all those notebooks, I was figuring out as I needed them. It was a very organic process. And I didn’t have the disappointment of having to leave everything on the cutting room floor.

You’ve built a number of very interesting, very complex relationships in Gideon the Ninth, but the core relationship is a very deep animosity between Gideon and Harrow. Harrow is the de facto leader of the Ninth house, who essentially forces Gideon to come with her on this venture that will make Harrow one of the most powerful people in the universe…if everything works out.

A generation ago, female relationships in the media were very Mean Girl-based, with a lot of animosity. Now female relationships are powerful and positive. But you’ve flipped the script again.

There’s been a lot of focus on female and girl relationships. One of my big inspirations is “Girls Own Boarding School” stories. Those are really focused about girls who are in very smothery situations—you know, living in each other’s pockets at boarding school. They have to have these very intense friendships; they have these very intense rivalries. Gideon and Harrow are two girls who are living in each other’s pockets in this hideous old necromantic retirement home where they are the two youngest there. And yeah, I have flipped the script in that they are not even slightly pretending to like each other—they hate each other openly.

And they have good reason to hate each other.

Oh, they do.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is when they reach the planet where they are going to compete against the other necromantic Houses in the universe. Gideon, knowing that this is going to make Harrow bonkers because it will ruin the impression Harrow wants to make, pulls out her aviator sunglasses and puts them on right before they join the other Houses.

I mean, if you need to understand anything about Gideon and Harrow, it’s that Gideon thinks that was really funny, and Harrow hates that with her whole soul. Harrow is not frivolous. Gideon is very frivolous.

So why choose necromancy as the core magic system of these books?

[Laughs] This was the question I was asking myself at the beginning of the book. I was never that obsessed with necromancy. When I thought necromancy, I thought Dungeons and Dragons. But I have always loved magic, and I’ve always loved magic to do with the body, because my favorite type of horror is body horror. The book is kind of gruesome. The book is not always very nice about its magic, and necromancy was a great way in to that.

There are thrilling scenes in the book where Harrow makes skeletons of just bone fragments—and being someone who plans ahead, she carries bone fragments in her pocket just in case she needs them.

They are a couple of different ways into necromancy in the book: flesh magic, bone magic, and ghost magic. Those are the big three. Bone magic is very creepy but very clean, very structured, very architectural. So very Harrow. Whereas, all this jiggly flesh [necromancy] is little bit too messy for her.

There’s a great quote on the book from Warren Ellis: “The author is clearly insane.”

[Laughs] When I got that [quote], I let out the biggest squeal. He’s an icon of mine, so when he said, “The author is clearly insane,” I was like, “That’s the nicest thing Warren Ellis could have said to me.”

Note: In the interview above, Adrian Liang mentions Gideon’s sunglasses and Harrow’s horrified reaction to them. Readers can see Gideon sporting her dashing sunglasses on the cover of the book.

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