Hello, my little sacks of bones, and welcome to the start of the Gideon the Ninth reread! I’m your host, Regina Phalange, and over the next few months, I’ll be walking you through Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir from beginning to end, in preparation for the release of Harrow the Ninth, the second book in the Locked Room trilogy!
Today, I’ll be covering chapters one and two, and heads up: there will be more spoilers than the Youtube comments of a Star Wars movie trailer. So if you haven’t read the book yet, you might want to bone up on your reading first.
Okay, now buckle your seatbelts, strap on your helmets, and keep all ulnas and femurs inside the vehicle, because here we go!
Before the story opens, readers have been provided with a “Dramatis Personae” of all the characters. Which is quite handy, as there are nine houses and a lot of names to learn. But I’m not going to address them right now, we’ll circle back to them in a couple weeks. (“Day one: Shirk responsibilities right off the bat? Check!”)
Following the handy guide is an octave about Houses Two through Nine. It starts off “Two is for discipline, heedless of trial; Three for the gleam of a jewel or a smile.” (Fun fact: these were the original lyrics used in ‘Add It Up’ by The Violent Femmes.) (No, they weren’t.) Note: There’s a reason the first house isn’t listed, but I’m not going to mention why that is right now, either. So far, I’m getting by without doing any real work!
This brings us to ACT ONE, CHAPTER ONE:
In the first paragraph, we learn that Gideon Nav has packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and has escaped from the House of the Ninth. (For this exercise, in my mind, Gideon will be played by Mackenzie Davis.)
Yup, that’s Gideon. You’re probably wondering how she got in this situation. Me, in reading this for the ninth time, I know how. What I am actually wondering is where did she get dirty magazines??? It’s a seemingly medieval death planet, with lots of skeletons, swords, armor, dank cells, and, well, death. So how did Gideon get her hands on them? Are they relics from a time long ago? Did she pick them up at the local Bones & Noble? Inquiring minds want to know.
Moving on: After brushing her teeth, combing her hair, getting dressed, and sweeping the floor, Gideon has unlocked her security cuff with a stolen key, grabbed her stuff, and left her cell. She visits her mother’s empty catacomb niche, and then climbs up twenty-two flights to a dark pit to await the shuttle that will take her off the Ninth House planet. She has two hours to wait for her ride. The first thing she does is search every inch of the pit’s walls and dirt floor. Why? We’ll soon find out.
After Gideon’s thorough examination of her surroundings, she eats a bag of grey porridge (ew), looks at the hundreds of reanimated skeletons below picking snow leeks in the planter fields, and observes the rest of the Ninth House rising for the day to head for orison after the clanging of the First Bell. (Fun fact: ‘Orison’ is another word for prayer, not deer meat, no matter what anyone tells you.)
With just forty minutes until her shuttle is due to arrive, Gideon sits down to clean her sword when the bell rings out again with a muster call. (‘Muster’ meaning ‘gathering,’ not the collective noun for peacocks.) But no matter—forty minutes and she’s splitsville, so no need to attend!
That’s when Crux, the marshal of Drearbruh, shows up. (For this exercise, in my mind, Crux will be played by Vincent Price. After he died.) Gideon is not surprised to see him. In fact, she then says her first line of dialog in the book, teasing him for taking so long to notice she had escaped.
Crux, who is a towering scarecrow of rot despite being alive, is not amused. He insists Gideon return for muster to please the Lady, before or after he gives her a thumping, her choice. When she refuses, he stomps off. Only twenty minutes left now until Gideon’s shuttle arrives, for those of you playing along at home.
Next comes Aiglamene, Gideon’s sword-master, who is an ancient old woman with half a melted face and a leg made of bone. Just bone, I mean. No meat. (For this exercise, in my mind, Aiglamene will be played by Jessica Tandy. Mostly because of the amazing broadsword work she did in Driving Miss Daisy. “You’re my best phrenology.”)
Gideon is a little whinier this time. We learn she’s attempted to enlist in the Cohort (i.e. military) thirty-three times. (Fun fact: Other things that are thirty-three include Larry Bird’s jersey, Rolling Rock, and Jesus.) Aiglamene is unmoved. After more arguing, she smacks Gideon, and reiterates that she needs to go to muster, to please the Lady. Again, Gideon refuses, and Aiglamene leaves with only eleven minutes left until touchdown.
Next comes a brief interlude, where we learn a little more about Gideon. It turns out, the Ninth House planet is home to a prison halfway down its shaft, where the other houses send their most dangerous criminals. Kinda like how England treated Australia like a supermax for a while. (For some reason, when I envision the Ninth House prison, I see Rick Springfield’s ‘Bop ‘Til You Drop’ video, which is a horrifically glorious piece of work.)
Eighteen years ago, Gideon’s mother tumbled down the middle of the shaft, brain-dead, in a dragshute and hazard suit. (“Dragshute & Hazardsuit, Attorneys at Law.”) Tucked in her suit was a container holding one-day-old Gideon. As no prisoners were missing, and she couldn’t have survived a fall from space without burning up upon entering the atmo, no one knows where her mother came from.
The powerful old necromancers of the Ninth House are called to work some Miracle Max-type magic on Gideon’s mother to try and get answers, but when they bring her back from death, she screams, “Gideon! Gideon! Gideon!” and no more. So that’s how Gideon got her name. (Which is way better than how T.S. Garp was named, tbh.)
The Ninth has no problem taking in an infant, as they have long been open to receiving penitents, mystics, and pilgrims from the other houses. (Good grief, even the goth death planet is better about immigration.) We learn that at the time of Gideon’s arrival, there were “two hundred children between infancy and nineteen years of age, and Gideon was numbered two hundred and first.”
And then to close out the chapter, Muir just casually mentions that two years later, Gideon would only be one of three children left. JUST LIKE THAT. No explanation, just an “Oh, yeah, so there’s only Gideon, and the Lady of the House, and this other kid left alive two years later. Where should we get lunch today?” GEESH. What happened to 198 children?! More on this mystery later.
And thus endeth chapter one.
And now here comes the Lady. The Lady of the Ninth House, Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, to be exact.
As I mentioned earlier, I am going to examine character names more closely in another post, but for now, I will say that some of the names sound like they were created when someone filled their mouth with bread and then named the animals they saw at the zoo. (“Hantalobe Banda! Hellafend Flobmindo! Wrinosherozz Lepurn! Zingelbert Bembledack!”) (JK, that last one’s from an Eddie Izzard bit.)
So here’s the Reverend Daughter, Harrow, Gideon’s nemesis. Necregina George, if you will. She’s trailed by Crux, Aiglamene, and several skeleton-faced cloisterwomen. Harrow actually refers to Gideon as Griddle, but we don’t know why yet. (“Griddle me this, Harrow…”) We do learn Harrow is seventeen, has dark hair, a pale-painted face, and is dressed in all black. So…a teenager, then. (For this exercise, in my mind, Harrow will be played by Kiernan Shipka, with 1980s Joan Jett hair.)
Harrow chides Gideon for getting caught at the last minute after months of planning. She also tells her that she should really attend muster. But Gideon argues that it’s too late, in less than ten minutes, her shuttle will arrive, and if Harrow tries to stop her, she’s tell everyone what she knows, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. We don’t know what it is Gideon knows, but Harrow knows what she knows, you know?
But Harrow really wants Gideon to stay. Not because she likes her, but for entirely selfish reasons having to do with the muster. So she proposes a bribe. She pulls out a piece of actual paper, which seems to be a big deal. It’s a contract, stating Gideon’s commission to second lieutenant in the Cohort, with a bunch of extra perks, like full training, great pay, and a chocolate fountain. (I may have made that last one up.)
Harrow tells Gideon that she can have the contract, and the freedom to leave, if she attends the muster meeting. She won’t tell her what it’s about, just that she wants her there. But Gideon doesn’t trust Harrow, with good reason. Harrow has set her up like Lucy and Charlie with the football, and she’s pulled the skull away from Gideon at the last minute before. So Gideon refuses again.
(Also, Harrow mentions that she can use paper the contract is on if Gideon doesn’t want it, leading me to believe that paper really is a rare commodity on the Ninth House planet. Come to think of it, we don’t hear any mention of trees on the planet. Not even a wytch elm.)
Exasperated, Harrow removes all her decorative robes, her bone jewelry, her corset of human ribs, simply everything she has that she can use to perform magic. Then she challenges Gideon to a fight: if Gideon wins, she leaves right then with her commission. If Harrow wins, Gideon has to attend the muster, and then she can leave with her commission.
Gideon smells a trick, but her freedom is so close, she can taste it. But Harrow has no bodies with which to perform bone magic, and no implements to help her if she did. And now here’s Gideon’s shuttle, hovering over the entrance to the pit. Then the pilot gets on the loudspeaker: “Every man there go back inside, or we will blow a new crater in this little moon.”
Wait, that’s Firefly.
No, nothing happens with the ship, except it hovers over them, and seeing her freedom so close, Gideon agrees to Harrow’s duel. Before they start, Aiglamene insists Gideon give Harrow a sword, so it’s a fair fight. And Gideon asks, “Are you asking me to…throw her a bone?” (“First bone pun of the book! 10 points to Navenclaw!”)
So, yes, Gideon has agreed to fight Harrow, and whoo, cat-beans, was that stupid. Because no sooner has the fight started than Harrow pulls off her gloves to reveal her disgusting hands—Harrow has hands like Darth Vader’s real face. She wiggles her fingers, and quick as you can say “Bob’s your undead uncle,” skeletons start popping up out of the ground all around Gideon.
Because, of course, Harrow knew about Gideon’s plan to leave on a shuttle from the pit. So she buried skeletons in the floor of the pit the night before to have at her disposal. And now Gideon is dodging and weaving skeletons as they pop up like some undead whack-a-mole game. But she knows she’s boned, because the skeletons pop back up as quickly as she cuts them down. And Harrow, resplendent in blood sweat, is going to win.
(You’ll see that Harrow bleeds a lot when performing magic, and it never seems to stop. It’s blood—why doesn’t it clot up? Does Harrow take a lot of anticoagulants? A lot of Advil, perhaps, to help the pain of her hideous hands? I bet she does. She probably buys it at the same Goth Hudson News where Gideon gets her dirty magazine and rolls of Necro Wafers.)
Back to the fight: Try as she might, Gideon can’t defeat the skeleton army surrounding her, and eventually she is knocked to the ground, where Harrow ends their duel with a boot to her face. Crux calls the duel, a win for Lady Nonagesimus, and as Gideon sits defeated, Harrow tells Crux to tell the shuttle to wait, that their passenger has been delayed.
Annnnnnnnnnd that’s the end of chapter two! For those of you reading along for the first time: Did you think Gideon was going to get away? Or did you know she was doomed when Lady Macdeath showed up? What do you think the muster is about? Find out next week when I discuss chapters three and four! Same bat time, same bat channel. Thanks for joining me!
Liberty Hardy is a Book Riot senior contributing editor, co-host of All the Books, a Book of the Month judge, and a ravenous reader. She resides in Maine with her cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon. You can see pictures of her cats and her books on Instagram @franzencomesalive.