Blogging the Nebulas: Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth Is Space Opera Unhinged

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The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. All this week I will be reviewing each of them in turn and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

Tamsyn Muir’s gonzo debut is the kind of book that demands to be discussed solely in exclamations: Necromancers! Swords! Skeletons! Secrets! Space castles! Giant bone monsters! Dirtbag romance! Shitty teens! A Poochie reference! It is, as the kids say, a lot. And in the absolute best way.

The novel opens on the titular Gideon Nav as she attempts to run away from home, which might strike you as typical teenage rebellion if she didn’t seem so justified in her actions: She’s the orphaned ward of the Ninth House of the Emperor Undying, a planet-sized crypt populated by reanimated skeletons and only slightly more lively necromantic nuns. Gideon has spent years painting her pimpled face into a death’s head (as is tradition, no matter what it does to one’s complexion), perfecting her skill with a broadsword, taking abuse from the sisters of the Order of the Locked Tomb, and getting kicked (literally and figuratively) by the lady of the House, the teen necromancer Harrowhawk Nonagesimus (imagine a more pissed-off Wednesday Addams with access to magicks that could rip your skeleton right out of your body).

Gideon hopes to escape from the Ninth House and enlist in the military, but Harrow has other plans for her: The Emperor of the Nine Houses is holding a tournament to select his next Lyctor (something between a general, an assassin, and a trusted confidant), a position that brings with it the gift of immortality. Representatives from each of the houses have been summoned, and Harrow needs Gideon to act as her cavalier in the competition. Though they hate each other as much as ever, the two unite in pursuit of mutually beneficial ends: For Harrow, lyctorhood and a life of service to the Emperor; for Gideon, a one-way ticket out of nunsville.

From there, things get weird: Gideon and Harrow arrive at Canaan House—the rotting space castle (empty, save for a retinue of enchanted skeleton servants and a questionably alive proctor) that is the contest’s designated venue—like backwater hicks showing up for their first day at an elite prep school. The delegates from the other houses prove to be more worldly, more politically savvy, and demonstrably less socially awkward than our heroines, who hail from this galaxy’s equivalent of a Appalachian religious cult. But what starts off as a sort of black magic-infused twist on the Hunger Games grows quickly more sinister. It’s not just that someone seems bent on murdering all the contestants one by one; there also appears to be a darker conspiracy at work—a truth about the circumstances that have brought them all together that someone doesn’t want uncovered. Suddenly, the book transforms into a twisted take on the locked-room mystery, plus magic and worldbuilding that is off-the-charts cool (with only a bit of blood, Harrow can spin bone dust into a Ray Harryhausen-esque army with terrifying ease).

Describing the plot doesn’t do much to impart the experience of reading this book, because at least half of the reason it works is because of Tamsyn Muir’s prose; she has voice for days, and manages to turn what should be a disparate jumble of incongruent tropes and bizarre twists into an unputdownable reading experience. She mixes together flowery language that verges on overwrought, Gothic lagubriousness with punchy, sarcastic dialogue, and dozens of perfectly placed pop culture references. I’ve previously described it as what might result if Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake, and Ray Harryhausen collaborated on a novel on Reddit, and I still can’t think of a better way to put it.

The surface pleasures aside—I haven’t had so much pure fun reading a sci-fi novel in years—I think it’s also important to admire the structure under all that flash. It’s so easy to fall in love with the hilarious and heartrending journey of walking trashbag and teen swordswoman Gideon from “grudging participant in a contest to determine who will join the inner circle of the galactic emperor” to “grudging participant in a murder mystery in a haunted space castle” to, eventually, “grudging participant in the year’s most adorably combative queer romance” that you might not notice how many genres the author is dragging you through along the way.

Is it a fantasy? Well sure: there’s magic galore, dredged from blood and bone. Is it science fiction? Undoubtedly: Gideon is a citizen of a galactic empire and attempts to book passage on a spaceship that will take her to the front lines of an intergalactic war. Is it a mystery? Maybe that most of all: the plot resembles nothing so much as Agatha Christie on mescaline. In short, it’s impossible to slot into any one genre, and if you’re the kind of reader who can’t condone fantasy chocolate in their SF peanut butter, well, Gideon has a one-finger salute for you.

If you are even moderately active in online SFF circles, you’ve probably gotten used to people squeeing over Gideon the Ninth over the past, oh, 18 months or so. In the lead-up to its release in September 2019, the advance buzz was deafening; the advance copies sent to reviewers arrived laden with pages and pages of laudatory pull quotes (full disclosure: one of them was mine). Of course, lots of books are hyped up in prerelease; that’s what a good marketing team is for, and Publishing has a pretty damn good marketing team. And all the critical acclaim in the world doesn’t mean a book will find an audience.

Upon release, Gideon the Ninth found its audience and then some; it is unquestionably one of the biggest sci-fi debuts in years—perhaps since Pierce Brown’s Red Rising—and its success seems to be based almost entirely on word of mouth: readers finding it, loving it, and shoving it into the hands of all of their friends. (It even inspired cosplay before it even made it to bookstores.) A national bestseller ensconced on a host of major media best-of lists, an impressive finish in the Goodreads Choice Awards, a spot on the Hugo ballot: This is clearly a case of reader enthusiasm meeting critical acclaim. And considering so many of the book’s biggest fans are SFF writers themselves—and thus, likely SFWA voters—it definitely comes into the race a frontrunner.

Why does Gideon resonate so strongly with readers? That’s a harder question to answer; I think it mostly comes down to the expertly controlled narrative voice. Gideon (the character) is a damaged dirtbag with a foul mouth and a truer heart than she’ll admit, and she makes for the most memorable and endearing of companions to carry us through this bizarre locked-castle murder mystery.

In reviewing the largely unremembered 2006 thriller Running Scared, Roger Ebert crafted a turn of phrase that I will never forget, commenting that the film, “goes so far over the top, it circumnavigates the top and doubles back on itself; it’s the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness.” I find myself leaning on this bon mot every time I tried to explain the plot of Gideon the Ninth to someone who wants to know what the hype is all about. I think the novel’s muchness is one of its greatest strengths—but when it comes to the Nebulas, it could also be a weakness.

In stretching to envelop a half-dozen disparate subgenres and dozens of distinct characters and a narrative voice imbued with equal parts gothic excess and Extremely Online sass, Gideon the Ninth displays a manic energy that could turn off readers who aren’t tuned into its weird-ass wavelength. Certainly some will bounce off of its byzantine worldbuilding and purposefully obtuse plotting. I mean, I can’t personally imagine having this reaction, and I can’t say I have met anyone who has read it who feels that way, but surely these people exist within the voting body that nominated both this novel and Marque of Caine. Will there be enough of them to keep Tamsyn Muir from taking home the top prize? We’ll see.

Joel Cunningham was the founding editor of the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog (RIP), where he explored the galaxy for 5 years, picking up a Hugo Award (well, tangentially) along the way. He’s now managing editor of Lifehacker, which means he’s managing at least one thing nowadays. He lives in an apartment in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and hopes to go outside again someday. He tweets @joelevard.