In our 2020 Hugo Award roundtable, I was tasked with presenting Alix E. Harrow’s gorgeous gateway fantasy, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Though I chose the book simply for its name and cover design, I came to love the story. I am still disappointed that did not win. It’s a story that still resonates with me.
Of the stories described by my co-panellists, the novel I was most interested in was Gideon the Ninth. As Muir’s second book, Harrow the Ninth, was nominated in this year’s Hugo novel category, I relished the chance to pick up the series.
The first two books of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series are genre-bending marvels. As postapocalyptic tales with horror elements, gothic not merely in atmosphere but also in the creative use of literary motifs, these stories are a rare melange of famous and infamous genres I love to read. In particular, without becoming campy or inauthentic, the stories include all the best elements of dying earth science fiction, cult-survival post-apocalypse, haunted house horror, and chivalric romance.
The Locked Tomb world is itself as sophisticated in construction as its literary design. What makes these novels sing, however, are their characters. Indeed, with 30+ active characters, Gideon the Ninth can be a baffling book to begin. However, soon enough, many of these characters exit the stage in glory or ignominy, and the Dramatis Personae at the front of the book—as well as a few google searches for fan infographics—kept me moving along.
In what appears to be an intergalactic experiment in human re-formation following the destruction of Earth, a great necromancer has resurrected the lost dead of a dying human species, reseeding them among nine planets to become the great houses of the necromancer’s undying empire. The Necrolord’s first house is served by the other eight, whose characteristics are captured in the poetic preface to Gideon the Ninth:
Two is for discipline, heedless of trial;
Three for the gleam of a jewel or a smile;
Four for fidelity, facing ahead;
Five for tradition and debts to the dead;
Six for the truth over solace in lies;
Seven for beauty that blossoms and dies;
Eight for salvation no matter the cost;
Nine for the Tomb, and for all that was lost.
At the back of these two novels is a summons by the Emperor-god for representatives from the eight service houses to travel across the universe to Canaan House in order to win a chance to gain immortal Lyctorhood. Though the twins of the Third House change the game a little by producing two heirs of necromantic power, each of the eight houses sends a two-person team: the house’s necromancer and the cavalier who defends the necromancer.
Each house brings with it strengths that the others must face as enemies or use as allies. The Second House excels in skills (both in the sword and death magic), the princesses and prince of Ida of the Third lead by charismatic strength, the Fourth forges alliances, the Fifth understands the link between life and death, the Sixth has scientific and historical sophistication, the Seventh produces quick-blossoming wit and beauty that fades quickly, the Eighth is a hermitage of religious zealots who commit all their skill to knowledge to righteousness, and the Ninth House keeps the Locked Tomb.
There are other layers to the houses, so that the Second is the Emperor’s Strength, the Third is the Mouth of the Emperor, the Fourth the Hope of the Emperor, the Fifth his Heart, the Sixth his Reason, and the Seventh his Joy—while the eighth and ninth are the protectors of the “tome” and “tomb,” respectively, the biblicists and liturgists of great power and commitment.
At the centre of this story is The Ninth House, whose royal priests serve as caretakers of a cult that protects the balance of power in the universe: a figure entombed eternally, lying still in undying death, the kind of corpse that one should definitely not fall in love with.
The sole heiress of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus–for reasons that are simultaneously self-centred and sacrificial–greatly desires to become an immortal Lyctor, the sword of the Emperor. As her house’s historic cavalier is more suited to writing heroic verse than to being a hero, Harrow chooses to make Gideon Nav her cavalier prime.
While Gideon truly is an expert in the sword and thus an excellent choice to twin with Harrow’s genius as a necromancer, Gideon is far from happy with the honour. Indeed, when we meet Gideon at the opening of Book 1, she is in the midst of attempting her umpteenth escape—not just from the castle entombed within the depths of the sacred mountain, but from the planet itself, as the entire planet is the Ninth House. With laconic wit and sardonic fatalism, Gideon has been trying since childhood to escape the extremely creepy and downright abusive holy house of the Ninth.
In escaping the Ninth House, Gideon longs to serve the Emperor as a swordsman, but her antipathy of Harrowhark goes much deeper than a simple relation of master and slave. Near contemporaries of birth, Gideon and Harrow have been locked in a cycle of mutual hatred and violence for as long as they have been conscious of one another. Following one of the weirdest battle scenes I have ever encountered in the first chapters of a book, Harrowhark bribes a reluctant Gideon into serving as her cavalier prime for the upcoming contest, promising freedom and commendation should they survive. Fiercely independent and antagonistic in skillsets and personality types, Harrow and Gideon slowly learn that to succeed in Canaan House—indeed, even to survive the contest’s quests and the blades of other houses—they must work together. To win the game, they must draw into intimate connection Gideon’s finesse with the blade and facility to gain allies with Harrow’s precise work in death magic and her blade-sharp intelligence.
With this premise in place, Book 1 (Gideon the Ninth) is primarily about the search for Lyctor knowledge in Canaan House, which soon becomes a fight for survival against unseen foes. Book 2 (Harrow the Ninth) is about Harrow’s further growth in necromancy and her seeming psychological degradation. The books link and overlap in timeline, creating one of the more unusual serial relations I have ever encountered.
The linguistic play, character motivations, imagery, and world-building are each so complex and visually detailed that I must admit that I struggled to find my footing in reading these novels. That said, I loved Gideon the Ninth. I revelled in Gideon’s brilliance as a character, including both her extremely caustic sense of humour and her emerging heroism with loyalty at its core.
However, while I loved its root story, Harrow the Ninth was extremely difficult for me to get into. Not only does it have all of the admirable complexities of its prequel, but the newest novel includes a number of alienating features.
On the one hand, it is a sequel that absolutely requires knowledge of the first book. Like Gideon the Ninth, the intricate details of the fictional world are revealed slowly throughout the novel, requiring a good deal of trust and imaginative openness on the part of the reader. There are times when I wonder if the slow-drip intravenous approach to revealing speculative universe structures demands too much. In any case, few writers could do what Muir does in terms of visual imagery, atmosphere, and (meta)physics.
On the other hand, the eager reader of Gideon the Ninth is going to be completely baffled by the protagonist as we see her interior life in Harrow the Ninth. At least, I was that eager reader and I was puzzled and disoriented by the first half of a sequel that, in principle, picks up just after Gideon’s tale but somehow also lives alongside the previous novel.
Tamsyn Muir is clearly a writer who demands much from her readers. While Gideon the Ninth is, for me, not just a work of imaginative genius but also the centrepiece for a character I loved from the first page, Harrow the Ninth is a strong sequel in that Muir continues to write with imagistic sophistication. Indeed, she has extended her initial reach somewhat with an experiment in point-of-view—one that seems to risk even more in the second novel’s epilogue.
Imagistically, Muir succeeds as Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny do in creating a lovable/unlovable hero character in an alien, visually-rice environment, where the classic demands of heroism are renegotiated but never lost entirely. Muir goes further, however, in creating sparky, bright, and vulgar dialogue that somehow works in continuity with a story that is soaked in a dark, brooding, and grave literary environment. Indeed, “gothic” is not merely a description of genre and atmosphere in these novels, but a dramatic understatement about the poetic sophistication that Muir employs.
How do you do gothic so well and create dialogue and interactions that are laugh-out-loud comical without either degrading the necromantic atmosphere or creating a parody? Perhaps I am simply unaware of a whole genre of funny and effective gothic nightmares set in space with vivid and varied characters filled with witty banter and humorous unexpectedness. I suspect, though, that Tamsyn Muir is simply very good.
I also suspect there are miles of depths within these novels that I am simply locked out of. Frequently, I feel like there is a pop culture or literary connection on the edge of my imagination, but I can’t quite find it. I even feel like if a character said, “They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper” or “I am not left-handed” or “Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you” or “Ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or dreaming?” I would finally understand the joke.
One of the things I feel like I begin to understand is Muir’s linguistic playfulness. In dozens of names and hundreds of little word choices, Muir teases up and recreates philological wonders rooted in Latin and Greek words, but entirely at home in the many duels in these books—whether the militant artistry happens to be the rapier, the two-handed sword, philosophical logic, scientific understanding, healing, team-building, necromantic bonework or bloodplay, occult magic, neuromancy, ancient (i.e, contemporary to the reader) firepower, ecological warfare, geocide, theocide, a criminologist’s eye, or naked men wrestling Greek style in a astrophysical plane that is (I think) at least partly a metaphor.
There are a lot of battles. Fortunately, Muir is one of the greatest writers of hand-to-hand combat that I have read in this generation of science fiction novels.
I get the word-play. I love the verbal inventiveness. I also get the value of the risk in transgressing genre—and I suspect there are even more structural elements at play than I have described. For example, there is the question of romance in the more contemporary sense—but one befitting a chivalric tale. Though it has been touted as a queer sf tale, the Locked Tomb series is, only sort of, a kissing book. There are romantic interests and crushes and an occasional kiss, as well as a theochromatic orgy off-screen in the second book. Each of the kisses, at least to my recollection, is organic to the moment and critical to the tale.
However, beyond the kissing, what I like about reading this series is that other things matter in the relational matrix of the story’s moral heart—things like friendship and bravery and honour and creativity. I like that these are, at their heart, orphans’ tales, with the orphan longing for parental love, guidance, and mentorship. I like that it is difficult to know who to trust—for each book is also, generically speaking, a mystery—but I like even more that it is difficult to learn how to trust. For it is a lesson the reader needs to be as aware of as the characters in the tales, whose hearts and bodies and minds are in the line of fire.
If I did not discern the clues of mystery at the heart of the Gideon the Ninth labyrinth quest clearly enough, I feel like I understood the necropsychophysiological detective story that drives Harrow the Ninth—even if I didn’t get all the details. So although I struggled with the first half of the book, like Gideon the Ninth, the sequel has an absolutely riveting penultimate section. As the second novel came to a close, however, I must admit to a return to befuddlement. For the critical distinction of the Gideon-Harrow story that I discerned in the details of the series has not turned out to be the radical mystery that the novel wants to solve. Or at least not yet, for there are two more stories to come.
Gideon and Harrow are books that could only be written in a visual age, in an age of haunted house horror shows and epic fantasy films and bored aristocrats on television and video games with swordfighters with their backs to the wall in institutional bathrooms and hotel lobbies. As a reader who rarely visualizes the background details but instead allows imagery to wash over my reading experiences with atmospheric energy, I really feel that I am at a distance from the imagistic richness of Muir’s magical world.
I would love to see these worlds come alive on screen. But who could do it? How it be done except with an ill-fitting ensemble production team with Ang Lee on breathtaking photography, Christopher Nolan on time-layering action sequences, Guillermo del Toro on fantasy visual design, Ridley Scott on neo-noir dystopia, Tobe Hooper on horror sf elements, Tim Burton on spooky weird, Jim Sharman on costume, and Lilly and Lana Wachowski on how to make a super cool pop culture phenomenon that lives on the edge of the ridiculous—with consultation by Stephen King and Neil Gaiman on ensuring that the rest don’t miss the core of Muir’s world-building genius? I don’t know if it can be done, but Denis Villeneuve’s recent work gives me hope.
Thus, while the second Ninth novel was more harrowing than the first, I highly recommend Tamsyn Muir’s postapocalyptic space-age detective stories of necromantic heroism.
Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)
- Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon and the Lady Astronaut Universe (11/10/21)
- Sarcastabots, The Wall-E Effect, and Finding the Human in Martha Wells’ Network Effect (11/17/21)
- A Time to Listen: Rebecca Roanhorse’s Astonishing Novel Black Sun (11/24/21)
- N.K. Jemisin’s Super Strange Urban Apocalypse in The City We Became: Part 1: The Allegory That is Born (12/07/21)
- N.K. Jemisin’s Super Strange Urban Apocalypse in The City We Became: Part 2: The City I Can’t Become (12/09/21)
- The Heroic Gideon and Harrowing Features of Living in the Ninth: Tamsyn Muir’s Decaying Necromantic World (12/14/21)
- The Worlds of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi and Owen Barfield‘s Philosophy (12/16/21)
- The Signum University Hugo Award Best Novel Roundtable (12/18/21)