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How Gideon the Ninth author Tamsyn Muir queers the space opera

Locked Tomb author Tamsyn Muir to angry girls who read her books: “It’s for you. Go nuts.”

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Constance Grady and Tamsyn Muir talk the Locked Tomb trilogy
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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This pandemic winter could use some joy. So the Vox Book Club spent December and January with two of the most fun books I’ve read in a long time: the first two volumes of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy, Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth. And at the end of January, we met up with Muir on Zoom to talk them through.

The Locked Tomb trilogy’s logline is that it is about lesbian necromancers in space, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s a rich and vibrant story about love and sin and redemption, laced through with allusions to everything from Peter’s denial of Christ to the none pizza with left beef meme. We asked Muir to explain herself, and she obliged.

You can check out our full conversation in the video above, or read highlights in the transcript below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

And if you’d like to keep the fun going, sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter and stay tuned for the discussion of our February book, Raven Leilani’s Luster.

On to the lesbian necromancers.

Building a world of memes and magic

I want to start by looking at this incredibly complex mythology you’ve created. One of the things that’s really impressive to me is how carefully it’s delivered. There are just these tiny little drips of information that get sent to the reader a little bit at a time. So how did you go about developing this really baroque world-building, with the magic system and the nine different Houses and Lyctors and the Resurrection Beasts? And then once you had that in place, how did you think about which little bits the reader would need to know when?

God, what came first? The chicken or the egg? I wish I could say I was one of those authors who for five years before publication had this really thick journal where they were like, here’s exactly what goes on. Here’s me developing the entire society and its economics and what coinage it’s using and numismatics. The truth is, everything developed from the story template.

I always feel really embarrassed when I get asked this question because I wish I had a more intelligent answer. But I’ve got one single page of notes in the back of an old school book where I’d written down the idea of it about three weeks before I started writing. It’s just a page. It’s large writing. It doesn’t have anything in it of the mythology, which I hope is baroque, which comes later. It’s like, “Gideon’s a fireman!” Gideon is not a fireman, that has been tragically excised from the mythology.

She would be such a good fireman!

I mean, she wouldn’t, though! She’d just want the outfit, and she wouldn’t even want the outfit, cuz like, the biceps.

Everything came from the story template. The RBs, or the Resurrection Beasts, the Lyctors, even the magic system. That all came about precisely because of the storyline I wanted to tell.

Hell, to be honest, necromancy comes about because of the type of person Harrow needed to be. Harrow was never going to be the type of character who was an intuitive magician, I think what classic D&D calls the difference between a wizard and sorcerer. She needed to be somebody who really had to work for it. You get a lot of magic systems that are more intuitive and less about scholarship. But I really wanted a magic system that was scholarship-based, that was something that you had to earn. And it’s more about what character beats I wanted to hit, and about what plot beats I wanted to hit, that informed the mythology.

I also want to talk a little bit, before we get into more specifics, about all of the memes in the book.

There’s not that many! There’s a couple.

The none pizza with left beef.

So sorry, I’m so sorry.

They seem to be a little divisive. I’ve spoken to some people who feel sort of like they get taken out of the flow of the story by them. And then there are other people who get really into tagging them when they come up, and they just want to create an annotated edition. And whenever I recognize one I’m like, “Oh!” and then I just keep reading. But I’m curious about how you think about them when you were embedding them into the web of the story.

The truth is that I am just a very referential writer. And my problem is that I’ve got a very Catholic taste. There’s a hell of a lot of Bible stuff in there too. But you see a Bible reference and are like, “Oh, well, the author is well-learned,” or, “The author is extremely Catholic.” You come by the classics. There’s a hell of a lot of references to Greek mythology, to Homer, to The Iliad. And then you come across a Llamas with Hats reference. And it’s not because I set about to make the book particularly memey, it’s just because I’ve got a shit sense of humor. I think of John 3:16 the same way I think about none pizza with left beef.

I think one problem is that I am kind of poking fun at myself as a writer. It’s like, I only get to make the highfalutin’ Rainer Maria Rilke references so long as I’m also making references to Homestar Runner. It’s almost like I’ve got to pay the toll. Or is it the other way around? Like, if I’m going to make these references I have to get the Bible in there somewhere?

The queer, fraught power dynamics of necromancers and their cavaliers

So moving a little more into Gideon the Ninth. We have at the heart of this mythology this relationship between the necromancer and the cavalier. And we see that iterated over and over again in the different characters at Canaan House. Some of those relationships are romantic, and some are familial, and some are platonic, but they all appear to be very loving.

We end up seeing the reverberations of this final culmination of the relationship playing out across the mythology, where the necromancer devours the cavalier to become a Lyctor. That’s sort of a betrayal in some ways, and it’s a sacrifice in other ways.

I’m just so fascinated by the power dynamics, down to very little things, like the way the cavaliers are made to sleep in a smaller cot at the foot of the necromancers’ beds. So how do you go about developing this really vexed and fraught power dynamic? And how do you think about that dynamic complicating the love that these pairs all appear to share?

It is in so many ways a codependent relationship. And you get to see it reflected in all these different pairs. The way that the cavalier-necromancer relationship plays out between the Eighth House, with Silas and Colum, is totally different yet again to the way that it plays out in the Sixth House with Camilla and Palamedes.

I have always been fascinated by enmeshed relationships, I think is not an unfair way of putting it. Especially on the battlefield, that kind of thing is just absolutely bread and butter. To me, that’s where you get to people’s relationships playing out in a really fascinating way. Not to [talk] down here in any way on Magnus and Abigail, who are not really a battlefield couple, at least you don’t get to see them doing that too much.

It’s just me indulging myself. I love seeing pairs of people in a not necessarily romantic way. And in fact, in the mythology, it’s not meant to be romantic at all, but it inevitably has that shaded into it. I think it’s something that we’ve gotten to see in previous mythologies and previous books a lot with guys. And one thing I did want to see is that enmeshed battlefield feeling between women and women, or between men and women and flipped over. That’s what you see between Camilla and Palamedes. It’s just me going ham. And I haven’t even begun to plunge those yet.

One of the things that surprised me about the reception for the book, which maybe it should not have, is I actually got a lot of pushback from commenters for characterizing the relationship between Harrow and Gideon as being a romantic love story. Which, of course, I recognize that at no point in volume one do they make any explicitly romantic declarations.

But I also have a hard time imagining that if I were talking about a scene between a male and female character where they’re standing in a pool and exchanging their darkest secrets, and then holding each other in their arms and saying, “one flesh one end,” and I said, “This is a love scene,” that people would be like, “But have you considered that maybe they’re long-lost siblings?” So I’m wondering if you’ve experienced any of the same hesitancy to read that relationship as romantic in the reception to the book, and whether it surprised you.

Oh, this is so fraught, though. Way back when I had just finished the book, and I had started sending it out to agents, I got a super nice agent who was really excited about it. And they finished the book, and they’re like, “Cool, really interesting, really liked that sisterly relationship.” And I was like, “Oh, no, it’s gay.” Because I mean, Harrow and Gideon, for whatever else it is worth, is explicitly homoerotic. Is it romantic? Are those two things necessarily tied? That is something that is going to be, not explained, but visited again, in the third book.

But I think that if you have a couple or if you have a pair of girls, the problem is that it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to have people see that as romantic. I’ve taken a lot of joy out of people who are like, “It’s really cool that this relationship isn’t necessarily out-and-out romantic,” that this isn’t necessarily a ship. But at the same time, I’ve got a lot of mates who have also written books with central lesbian protagonists, women-loving-women protagonists, and oh my god, you can basically have them make out on screen and everyone’s like, “Hm, very sibling-y!” And I think that that’s a problem.

I wish that I was writing into the void, where I could just be interrogated for what it is, not for what people bring into it. But I think that’s every author’s wish.

Is it going to be explicitly romantic? Is it a romantic trajectory by the end of the books? Who knows? I mean, we’re two books in and they have not done so much as hold hands. Maybe I’m gonna sink that battleship like crazy.

But at the end of the day, what I will say in terms of Gideon and Harrow is that it is meant to be homoerotic. There is meant to be a romantic element to it, even if it is not something that is a relationship element, if that makes any sense whatsoever.

How to write a second-person point of view

Moving a little bit into Harrow now: One of the things I love about the second-person narration in the book is it justifies itself on a character level, because Harrow is obviously disassociating with grief, and then also on a plot level, because of course, it’s not actually Harrow who’s talking to us. So how did you strike the balance between keeping us within Harrow’s perspective, but then also having Gideon needle at her periodically, so that we sort of get the idea as we read that there’s something more going on there?

As I was writing Harrow, I flipped backwards and forwards constantly. I’d be like, “This is so obvious.” There are a couple of Gideon lines that were just too overt. So in the first editor pass, my editor was like, “Nah, this is not Harrow, people are going to immediately see.” But then again, I see lines that are so plainly obvious that got left in. But you know, you’ll have people read and be like, “It was incredibly surprising when I caught up to that moment and it turned out to be Gideon all along.”

I think one thing that helped in my crazy attempt to do an Italo Calvino is that Harrow does not give that much of herself in book one. And in book two, you are hopefully slapped in the face first thing with just how ferociously Harrow hates herself, and the violence with which she does. And I think that actually helps mask some of the Gideon energy. Because Harrow when she’s thinking of herself is not how she talks. That Harrow was so measured. That Harrow is so careful. And in her head, she’s just like, “God, I hate you so much.” It’s with that kind of energy that Gideon is able to slip beneath. So that helped a lot.

So the part where Harrow starts going through all of these fanfiction tropes in her head, it just fills me with glee. Were there any alternate universe tropes that you considered using besides the coffeehouse AU and the role reversal that you eventually had to scrap?

You know, I went into it knowing exactly which ones I wanted, and feeling like my editor was probably going to cut the coffeeshop AU. He did not. He is a good human being. But I felt like the coffeeshop AU was slightly too much.

I wanted to do the “everyone’s at a ball and Harrow’s received a makeover.” That’s just absolutely right for Harrow. And I definitely wanted to do the “Harrow is a cavalier and Gideon is necromancer.” Although I was really worried that nobody would be able to tell that Gideon was the necromancer there. And again, that’s something that they’re all made to be hinting at: bigger ideas that Harrow hasn’t even quite been able to figure out herself.

One thread running through all of this is the idea of getting into divinity. Gideon’s parentage is about to be revealed in a big way. And I think in every single one of those AU slots, there is a huge hint.

And then in the last one with the coffeeshop AU, there’s maybe the worst pun I’ve ever done, but I don’t even care. I nearly cut that one because I couldn’t get away with it. But I kept it in. No regrets.

Writing a lady Draco in Leather Pants

I want to talk a little about Harrow and Ianthe’s relationship. First of all, how do you make reconstructing an arm out of bone magic sexy?

I’m sorry. I realized it was a sex scene going in. I hadn’t envisioned it as a sex scene. I’m not one of these authors who’s like, “I just let the characters take me to where they want to go.” They go where I damn well put them!

It’s some hideous imp of mischief. Maybe it’s a kind of sympathy to Ianthe. I was writing that scene, and I was like, from your point of view, this is just sex. This is absolutely sex. She’s getting down and dirty in the most appallingly necromantic way. Harrow kind of knows it’s sex as well. But you know, whatever Harrow thinks of sex is really weird anyway. And then I was like, fine.

I was really glad to finally be doing something more explicitly sexual in book two. The trilogy as a whole is quite chaste. There isn’t actually that much onscreen, you know, liquids, which is the only way I can put it.

But in terms of Harrow and Ianthe, it is so explicitly gay. It is so explicitly terrible. Ianthe is so completely into her in very much a way that Harrow isn’t really good at dealing with, except in the kind of way where your arm comes off and you regrow it. Harrow can deal with that fine. That’s easy.

I know you’ve talked elsewhere about the idea that Ianthe is your lady Draco in Leather Pants. And for those joining us who don’t know, the Draco in Leather Pants is the fanfiction trope of a character who’s morally ambiguous and kind of lounges around saying sexy bitchy one-liners to the hero. So how do you think making that trope feminine changes things?

Well, it means I have a lot of fun. Possibly too much fun. I’ve had to really guard myself to make sure that I don’t just let Ianthe run riot.

But I mean, there are so few female characters who are like Ianthe. She comes from such a privileged position. She gets to be not only Draco in Leather Pants. She’s the evil vizier. That’s also a very sexy trope that girls don’t necessarily get to embody. And again, that’s something that goes even worse in book three.

With Ianthe I just think, “Okay, how would I write this if they were a guy?” I’m just going to do the same thing. I’ve had to guard myself a couple of times, being like, “I’m going to reach into something more feminine for X character or Y character.” Why the hell am I limiting myself? I’m just going to make this as completely stupid as I want to be. And that is why Ianthe is [over the top] and terrible.

Is there anything we can look forward to in Alecto that you can tease now?

Saying anything about Alecto would be so terrifically spoilery that I can barely think of what to say except everything is different, all over again. And terrible. And Ianthe will be awful. Ianthe will reach new heights of being absolutely goddamn dreadful.

Great, that’s all I want in the world. So now we’re going to take some questions from the audience. We have quite a few people who want to know about Harrow calling Gideon Griddle and where that nickname came from.

To be honest, Gideon is a name which I think has some biblical heft to it: Gideon and Mideon. It’s just Harrow making the name stupid. I wish that I could say that Gideon fell onto a griddle when she was 4 or some adorable baby backstory. It’s just Harrow being a dick. If Gideon had been named anything else, she would have also attempted to make that into an extremely banal, everyday name. Gideon had no hope.

Writing a book for the angry girls

Mara asks, “I read on your Reddit AMA that one of your biggest obstacles is physical and mental illness. I was wondering if you could please elaborate on this further and tell us how you work around them. I have multiple chronic illnesses and feel like I will never ‘achieve’ anything. So it would be lovely to hear from someone who had.”

I won’t go into too much detail about my mental illnesses, because I’m super private about them. But I will say of that feeling of never being able to achieve anything: The world is set up to make you feel that way. One thing that really helped me was reframing that achieving. We were all told pretty ceaselessly about what achievement looks like. And it’s not stupid to have dreams and ambitions that you want to fulfill. The problem is that if you are chronically ill, if you’re mentally ill, it is a hell of a lot harder. The one thing that you have to retain is being able to celebrate you and your achievements, not as contrasted to anybody else’s. Hold on to that, light onto that, you know, keep that first and foremost.

Perez says, “This has been something that’s been on my mind since I finished Harrow the Ninth. Is the denial of Peter something you deliberately thought about when writing about Harrow forgetting Gideon?”

Yes, it is. Absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot of crappy biblical allusion. There’s biblical allusion that I haven’t even begun to mine. It has been in there from book one, it saturates the book. There is so much more of it in book three.

Oicchu says, “I’ve always been really drawn to the concept of violence and rage within women, as it is a side of us that is heavily suppressed and denied by society. I love how they’re portrayed in the Locked Tomb and how imperative they are to the narrative. So I wanted to ask about what your goal and thought process was when creating such a tone for the story.”

As anybody else who was born in and around 1985 will know, a lot of the stories we got fed, even in a time where women were out in the battlefield more, was that at the end of the day, being angry and fighting actually wasn’t great. And so what the real takeaway at the end of the day was, the love of your friends and hugs is the greatest thing that a woman can have. So being able to repudiate that and give a middle finger to the “a woman’s place is actually the peacemaker and the heart of the group” has undeniably set the tone of the books.

I’m really glad to see other books and media kind of picking that up. I think that if you looked at the ages of the people involved, they grew up as women identifying as women in that era, and I think it’s something that pissed off a hell of a lot of people. And it’s been incredibly fun to just let loose.

So I hope that every girl who got told off for being angry, and who, like me, in their secret heart of hearts, just kind of pretends that she has a huge broadsword or ax and hits people, it’s for them. It’s for you. Go nuts.