Gideon The Ninth: Fun AND Provoking

I’ll admit, it’s been a little while since I read Gideon the Ninth (November 2020), but since Harrow the Ninth is a Hugo finalist, I thought it might be good to review the first book here, before my eventual review of the sequel. Please forgive any cobwebs that might blow by as I get going . . .

Initial reactions?

I think my initial reactions to this book were a little bit surface level, but definitely positive. Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is a FUN book. This story is equal parts exciting, mysterious, thought provoking . . . and in a lot of instances, just weird. Obviously I loved it!

The main character, Gideon, is probably the main draw for most, and deservedly so. She is — by turns — funny, crass (I think one of the first lines, if not THE first line has to do with her looking at inappropriate magazines), self-serving, heroic, and very likable.

As the story progresses, we get to know her more intimately, and we see that the adjectives I just used are but one facet of Gideon, and that she has many more facets which encourage or contradict our impression of her seemingly at random (although nothing is ever truly random in a novel I suppose). To say it succinctly, Gideon is a mess, and she would probably be the first one to describe herself as such . . . after which she’d probably do pushups.

Now I don’t say that Gideon is a mess because I want imply that this is somehow bad character building, or bad writing. On the contrary I think it is excellent character building and excellent writing because it is super relatable. I guarantee that nobody reading this blog (so like all three of you) has ever found themselves living in a futuristic necromantic society (without having read this book I doubt I would have thought those two words could be used together) in which walking skeletons are quite common, and people routinely raise the dead from their graves. So far as I know, that doesn’t happen, so the fact that Muir is able to get us to relate to a character for which these things are even somewhat normal, is a feat in and of itself.

Then the author boots us into a kind of gothic puzzle-type mystery of which all of Gideon’s comfort with the paranormal, contrives to do her absolutely zero favors.

And then there’s Harrowhawk . . .

She is probably the next thing that people get most excited about when talking about this book. Harrowhawk is Gideon’s — again by turns — nemesis, friend, employer, enemy, lover, peer (she’s the only other person in all of Ninth House even remotely Gideon’s age) . . . and a list of other things that I’m probably too lazy to write here. If Gideon is a mess, Harrowhawk is a complete disaster (again in a good way).

I won’t say much more about this here, other than to say that my one complaint of the novel is that there is a pivotal change in Gideon’s perspective when it comes to Harrowhawk, and I wondered as I was reading, if someone in Gideon’s circumstances would have actually felt this way given all the trouble Harrowhawk puts her through. I’m unsure, but it definitely made for good drama.

I feel the last part of this book that goes in the ‘fun’ category is the aesthetic. Everything in this book is so unequivocally gothic, that it often rushes right past frightening, stays for a quick lunch in absurd, and then launches right into laughable. Again, I felt this was intentional, and very much ‘in-character’ for Gideon who seems rather fed up with all the doom and gloom that is the Ninth House.

Initial Reactions Implies there were then Secondary Reactions?

Yes, the ‘provoking’ part of the title.

So I did some googling to try to refresh my memory about what happened in the first book, and realized there was actually a bit of controversy regarding Gideon and Harrow’s relationship. It’s a queer romance, which was gathering hype, because representation is important, and their isn’t (to my knowledge) a lot of mainstream Science Fiction which includes this and so people wanted to be happy about it. This should not raise any flags, or be considered a controversy.

But a lot of people are taking issue with the fact that it’s so screwed up. Essentially, Harrowhawk is in a lot of ways abusive, and uses not only her power as head of Ninth House, but also Gideon’s feelings for her to further her own agenda. That abuse of hierarchy, some have condemned as Slavery Romance, and when looked at in such a light, is pretty gross.

But the publisher, Tor Books, argues there is value in depiction of problematic relationships in fiction, so long as they do not Romanticize them. Their argument goes along the lines that books like Dracula, and The Mysteries of Udolpho give readers a safe place to:

. . . encounter monsters, serial killers, and other dangers they might fear, so too they allow readers to look at problematic relationships from a safe distance.

They reference Gideon’s Gothic aesthetic and clear influence and then continue on to point out that:

Books that depict problematic relationships can be a crucial tool to help readers who may be navigating their own toxic relationships understand that other people have gone through the same thing and that they don’t have to accept it as normal.

Finally they come to:

To queer readers, many aspects of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship feel familiar. Queer people often end up forced to interact with someone they hate, such as if they’re the only two out kids at a small school . . .

Now a lot of this, I’m unsure how to talk about. I can see after reading some of this debate that my earlier complaint that someone in Gideon’s circumstances might have chosen differently, was woefully simplistic, and comes from a place of my own privilege and agency in real life.

As for the debate above, all I can say is that I don’t ascribe to a view of literature that must have all the unsavory things removed. Yes people model their behavior after things they learn in stories, but I don’t believe that the only way to model good behavior is to model only good behavior. I believe we are smart enough to distinguish when an author is glorifying something we don’t agree with, and that as long as we’re thinking critically about what we read, we will still walk away without feeling the need to go out and enact whatever atrocity we’ve just seen.

I believe that people can write things that hurt other people, intentionally or unintentionally, and that we should always look at the motivations for why we feel we need to write the stories we write. We need to make sure that we are not writing a story to hurt someone or silence them.

Finally, it seems to me, that despite the moral ambiguity represented in Harrowhawk and Gideon’s relationship, I didn’t feel that the book condoned this behavior in anyway, simply showed it, and allowed readers to do, as we’re doing now, discuss and come to our own conclusions.

So it’s a good book?

In my opinion, yes! Go and read it. Sorry this post was a bit of a ramble, but I think it’s important to think about these things. Gideon the Ninth won both a Locus Award, and a Crawford Award (unfamiliar with a Crawford), and was a Hugo Finalist which is what put it on my radar. It certainly wraps some difficult themes in a goofy-fun mystery/adventure, and for that, I think it is deserving of all the awards and praise it has garnered.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please let me know in the comments.

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