Review: Gideon the Ninth

“Gormenghastian” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. I absolutely did not believe people who said Tamsyn Muir’s debut (and Hugo-nominated) novel Gideon the Ninth was like Gormenghast, because quite often what people mean when they say something is like Gormenghast is that it has a big scary house where weird things happen occasionally. Which is only, like, 10% of the point of Gormenghast.

Gideon the Ninth‘s eponymous heroine hails from the Ninth House – last in a series of necromantic Houses strung out across space, serving a mysterious Emperor. The Ninth House is in pretty bad shape, having lost all its children eighteen years before and being de facto led by an eighteen-year-old, Harrowhark, who accidentally killed her parents as a child and is trying to convince the rest of the world that they’re still alive and still in charge. It is a cheerless and decrepit place, filled with skeletons and elderly people and the dead. Not a great place to grow up, as Gideon (an eighteen-year-old indentured servant) and Harrow have, hating each other.

Soon after the novel opens, Harrow receives a message from the Emperor. He’s summoning representatives from all the Houses so he can pick a new Lyctor: a kind of ascended advisor who’ll help him govern the empire. Each House must send a team of two people: a necromancer and their cavalier, a specialised fighter who observes strict rules of etiquette and who has normally worked with their necromancer since childhood.

Harrow is an accomplished necromancer. And Gideon is a very good swordfighter – though not a cavalier, and certainly not someone who’s worked with Harrow for any length of time. But they’re all the Ninth House has to show; and so off they go, with the other Houses’ teams, to a decaying mansion called Canaan House. Once a fabulously luxurious palace, it’s now broken, decayed, overgrown, looked after only by a Sourdust-ian old relic called Teacher. (Actually he’s nicer than Sourdust, but they are both ancient and vaguely dusty priest-like figures, and the comparison feels apt to me.) Teacher has no instructions for any of the Houses: just a key and an instruction not to open any locked doors. With no better ideas, people start exploring. And then dying.

I once wrote a dissertation arguing that Gormenghast is, broadly, about the profound existential threat World War II posed to the English upper classes. Well, there’s a real war in Gideon the Ninth; an imperial war that seems to be eating up much of the resources of at least the Second and Fourth Houses. The Ninth House may be languishing, but the rest of the empire doesn’t seem to be far behind.

If the setting is Gormenghast to a tee, the same can’t be said for the tone, exactly. Gideon is, to put it mildly, irreverent:

Back in the bathroom, she smeared cold wads of alabaster on her face. The nun’s-paint went on in pale greys and blacks, swabbed over the lips and the hollows of her eyes and cheeks. Gideon comforted herself by recoiling at her reflection in the cracked mirror: a grinning death’s-head with a crop of incongruously red hair and a couple of zits. She pulled her sunglasses out of the pocket of her robe and eased them on, which completed the effect, if the effect you wanted was “horrible.”

She likes porn, giving people the middle finger and inwardly cursing people who are usually Harrow, giving her narration a decidedly meme-able feel that’s a nice counterpoint to the heavy Gothic aesthetic Muir’s got going on. It’s tempting to read Gideon as a type of Steerpike, an anti-establishment figure rebelling against the decadence and waste of the hidebound Houses; her flippant narration a corrective to, and criticism of, overblown Gothic prose. But I think such a reading would be wrong. For one thing, Gideon actually wants to join in the interstellar war the Houses are conducting. For another, I don’t think the novel is really at odds with the conventions of the Gothic (a genre that’s always teetering on the edge of self-parody anyway): Gideon’s internetty humour feels somehow just as excessive as the insane crumbling mansion she and Harrow explore. Extra might be a good word for both. Gothic in general is a pretty extra mode.

So where does this leave us? Another way that Gideon the Ninth is similar to Gormenghast is in its thematic concern with identity and self-definition. We can see this, metafictionally, in its liberal use of internet-type humour, its fanfic tropiness: much humorous internet speech is at its heart about performing identity and belonging in specific social circles. Gideon’s arc, really, is about discovering who she is and what she values beyond the morbid confines of the Ninth House; it’s about her being able to establish relationships on her own terms rather than being forced into them. In this way she’s a little like Gormenghast‘s Titus, only he has to leave the haunted castle to find himself. Which is interesting! The haunted house usually functions as a place that threatens characters’ subjectivity through its uncanny, ever-changing and thus semi-organic architecture; it’s not normally where they go to define it, as Gideon does. So in this sense, at least, Muir is working against established Gothic tradition: defanging the haunted house, casting it as a place where fulfilment can happen.

It’s been said (I wish I could remember by whom) that the Gothic mode is characterised by a house in love with a woman. Or vice versa. Whether or not that’s entirely accurate is debatable, but it’s true that for much of its early history the Gothic novel was seen as the province of silly women; kind of like prototypical chick-lit. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Gideon the Ninth is a very female novel; and its central story is one of two women, Gideon and Harrow, working out their fraught relationship and ultimately learning to trust each other. If many Gothic novels are about women isolated and scared, at constant risk of assault by men (see Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho or Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto for good examples), then this Gothic novel is about (fairly badass) women finding themselves and each other, learning to operate independently of control – something that’s still pretty radical in today’s misogynistic society. Essentially I’m reading Gideon the Ninth as a kind of reclamation of the Gothic mode for millennial women – women with real agency who’ll claim their self-actualisation with a sword, if necessary.

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