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The remixed genre tropes of Gideon the Ninth, explained

Enemies to lovers, And Then There Were None, and the other tropes of Tamsyn Muir’s genre-busting space opera.

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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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One of the things that makes Tamsyn Muir’s fantasy novel Gideon the Ninth so deeply satisfying to read is the giddy joy it takes in playing with different genre tropes. Sometimes I imagine Muir as a cackling mad scientist in a lab, grabbing beakers labeled “enemies to lovers” and “in space” and “that incel meme about studying the blade” and swirling all their contents together. The combinations really shouldn’t work, but somehow they do.

That’s part of why I always summarize this book as “lesbian necromancers in space.” It feels a little reductive, but it also comes as close as anything can to gesturing at all the trope-swirling glee going on here. (Plus, trying to summarize a plot this complicated any other way is a fool’s game.)

So for today’s Vox Book Club discussion, I wanted to go through some of the foundational tropes in Gideon the Ninth and talk about how they work and why. This novel is a lesson in genre-mixing, and in how to stick an impossible landing.

Spoilers for Gideon the Ninth (but none for its sequel Harrow the Ninth) follow.

Gothic House

Did you think we left the gothic house behind in October with Mexican Gothic? Never! I love a gothic house novel more than most things, and Gideon the Ninth has a particularly lurid one.

The bulk of Gideon the Ninth takes place in Canaan House. It appears to be the only surviving structure left on the planet everyone calls The First House (most likely a post-apocalyptic Earth, but we don’t know that for sure yet), and it is in ruins. It’s there that our central cast of necromancers and cavaliers set to work trying to solve the puzzle that the Emperor-God has set before them: namely, how to turn the necromancers into the mysterious beings known as Lyctors.

Canaan House is in a state of luxurious decay, and it’s pocketed with secrets. The characters are forever strolling through its shadowy corridors to discover horrors lurking, or marveling at the ancient luxuries slowly rotting before them. Placing us in this gothic setting is a good indication that the mysteries of Lyctorhood will be darker than any of our main characters expect they will be — and more, it’s a hint as to the exact nature of their darkness.

Gothic novels are animated in part by a violent disparity in power, which is what gives them their tension and their juice. In Gideon the Ninth, the necromancers all have enormous power over their cavaliers, and Harrow, the necromancer to whom our protagonist Gideon is indentured, has more power over her than most. So one of the central strands of this novel is attempting to navigate this disparity — and, potentially, abusing it.

And Then There Were None

As our central cast of characters tries to navigate the trials left behind for them by the original Lyctors, they find themselves getting picked off one by one. It’s the same plot as Agatha Christie’s mystery And Then There Were None, which sees a group of strangers on a remote island dying one after another. And just as in And Then There Were None, the murderer turns out to be the character you wrote off early on as someone who could never be a threat.

What makes this trope work so well is the sense of profoundly claustrophobic horror it engenders. Canaan House is an island surrounded by water, and the space shuttles are dismantled shortly after everyone arrives: There is no escaping it. Each person just has to wait, trying to work out which of their number is killing them and hoping they’ll be the one who survives.

Fake It Till You Make It

Large chunks of the novel’s first half are given over to Harrow and Gideon (mostly Harrow) attempting to convince the rest of their party at Canaan House that they know what they are doing and that they come from a house as wealthy and powerful as anyone else’s. In reality, they are barely squeaking by; the Ninth House has no money and no resources, and Gideon isn’t anything close to a properly trained cavalier.

This trope is a classic of both thrillers and social comedies: Think Tom Ripley trying to pass himself off as a moneyed WASP in The Talented Mr. Ripley, or Drew Barrymore posing as a popular teen in Never Been Kissed. Done well, the Faking It trope engenders a sense of endearing vulnerability in the protagonist, who is always in danger of revealing their true self. It offers the opportunity for both pratfalls and suspense. And it also gives the protagonist a chance to show off their ability to think on their feet and spin a quick lie.

In Gideon, the Faking It is mostly mined for comedy. Harrow tersely explains that she’s festooned their living quarters with skulls for “ambiance,” and Gideon stalks around in black robes and skull face paint and sunglasses like an extremely committed D&D player, even though we know that she is just a sweet basic jock who loves pushups. But it also gives Harrow some cracks in her facade of bitchiness, a weak spot in her armor that she is working furiously to compensate for. It makes her become just vulnerable enough to be lovable.

Enemies to Lovers

Enemies to Lovers is a classic romantic trope, the basis of everything from Pride and Prejudice to this year’s Netflix series Never Have I Ever. There’s a special joy in watching two people who hate each other come to first grudgingly appreciate one another and then fall in love. When it works, there’s something especially sparkly and lively about these particular love stories.

Gideon and Harrow have hated each other since childhood, but it’s also clear very early on that they would die for one another, and they react with disproportionate protectiveness whenever the other one is in danger. They are opposing archetypes (sweet jock versus vicious goth bitch, or, if you will, Sweaterboy versus Absolute Nightmare), so of course they must despise each other. But the arc of their quest is designed to force them to work together anyway because Lyctorhood depends on the connection between necromancer and cavalier. So in order to further their own ambitions, they have to learn to draw out their deeply buried appreciation for each other.

That is, they have to up until the very end of their quest. Because Lyctorhood, as all that gothic foreshadowing suggested, depends in the end on betraying the bond between necromancer and cavalier. That’s the toxic horror at the center of this trilogy. While Gideon finds a way to turn that betrayal briefly into a transcendent sacrifice, the power dynamics of her relationship with Harrow add an icky kind of subtext to that sacrifice. It’s not entirely clear if a sacrifice on this level can ever be purely free, and much of the rest of the trilogy is given over to trying to work out the implications.

Interestingly, it’s also uncertain in Gideon the Ninth whether the connection between Gideon and Harrow is romantic. The other relationships we see between necromancers and cavaliers aren’t always: Magnus and Abigail are married, but there’s also an uncle and nephew pair, and Camilla and Palamedes are in some kind of deeply platonic love. We know by the end of Gideon that Harrow and Gideon have become the most important people in the world to one another, but they never make any explicitly romantic declarations of love.

But the tropes Muir rolls out for Gideon and Harrow are deeply romantic nevertheless. Perhaps especially the next one we’ll be looking at.

Bathtub Bonding

When Gideon and Harrow at last reveal their final secrets to one another, rendering themselves vulnerable and knowable to one another, they do it in a pool. That makes the scene an example of Bathtub Bonding, one of the romantic staples of Japanese pop culture.

Classically, bathtub scenes are a great equalizer. Hierarchies of class and rank are stripped away, and both characters are equally bare and equally vulnerable. One of the tropes of anime is for two characters who are destined to fall in love to take a bath together and talk about their pasts, often while revealing their deepest and darkest secrets. The shared intimacy of the moment pushes their relationship forward.

Harrow and Gideon don’t have to kiss for us to know their relationship is romantic. The tropes tell us they are.

Bury Your Gays

Gideon the Ninth ends with Gideon’s death, just as she and Harrow have finally found an equal footing and seem poised to turn a corner in their relationship. For some readers of the novel, that death is just the latest iteration of the infuriating Bury Your Gays trope, in which lesbians are introduced in popular culture only to be immediately killed off, never left with a happy ending of their own. That narrative tradition goes back to lesbian pulp novels, which publishers mandated should never have happy endings, and it plays out today in shows like The 100 and The Magicians, which seem to treat their gay characters as somehow more disposable than their straight characters.

Personally, I don’t think Muir is playing into the Bury Your Gays trope so much as she is setting herself up to subvert it. The trilogy is structured so thoroughly around Gideon and Harrow’s relationship that it seems impossible that their storyline won’t be resolved somehow in the end. Plus, since the premise of this whole thing is “lesbian necromancers in space,” death doesn’t strike me as a very final obstacle for the lesbians.

But it’s a trope that is nonetheless deeply embedded into the narrative of the Locked Tomb trilogy. And much of the way we read it will depend on what comes next.

Discussion questions

Below are discussion questions to guide your conversation on Gideon, either in the comments below or in your own communities. If you’re chatting here, I’ll ask that you avoid spoiling Harrow the Ninth. We’ll talk about that one next month!

  1. What tropes did I miss in this basic overview? Which ones are your favorites?
  2. Okay, here’s an obvious one I didn’t get into: the “sorting by personality types/Hogwarts House” stuff going on with the Houses. Which House are you? I’m a Six, but I feel like that goes without saying for anyone who works here.
  3. Related: Which kind of necromancy is coolest? Obviously Harrow is devoted to her bones but I think spirit magic has a certain something going for it. Also a fan of liminal spaces.
  4. How do you feel about all the anachronistic memes stuck in apparently at random? Personally, they always make me chuckle, but I can also see feeling that they break the world-building a bit.
  5. How about that enormous supporting cast? Who’s your fave? As someone who always roots for hyper-competent women, I am torn between Abigail, Camilla, and Ianthe.
  6. Do you think Gideon is coming back in the end?
  7. There’s a compelling argument to be made that the relationship between Harrow and Gideon is too toxic to root for or romanticize, and that’s one of the major critiques I’ve seen of the whole Locked Tomb trilogy. I personally find the way Muir is analyzing the toxicity compelling, but I can see the alternate argument. Where do you fall?

There’s no live event this month, but we’ll be back on January 15 with a discussion post on Harrow the Ninth. Sign up for our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything, and we’ll see you in 2021!