Welcome back, space fans! It’s time for another close read of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir! I’m your host, Malice Trebek, and today I’ll be discussing chapters three and four. A quick reminder that this post will be more spoiled that Veruca Salt, so if you haven’t read these chapters yet, you should bone up on them first.
Now: Grab that overhead strap, and hold on to your hot pockets, because here we go!
When last we joined Gideon (who will be played by Jade Eshete in my mind today), she had been kicked in the face literally and figuratively by her nemesis, the Lady of the Ninth House, Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus (who will be played by Sarah Hyland in my mind).
Harrow has foiled Gideon’s plans of escape, and now Gideon is being unceremoniously dragged by the ankle by Crux, the marshal of Drearburh, to muster. (Which is another word for fancy mustard.) (No, it isn’t.) She passes out at some point, and when she wakes up, she’s in church.
The sanctum is a creepy place, where the bioluminescent powders in the arches trickle down like green glitter, like a goth disco. But in fact, the place is like 90% skeletons, it’s a skeleton party. (It’s a dead man’s party, who could ask for more? Everybody’s comin’, leave your body at the door.) The few humans in attendance are mostly Locked Tomb friars; we also learn that there haven’t been any soldiers or military friars since Gideon was very young.
So this is the muster that Harrow so badly wanted Gideon to attend! The Reverend Daughter is presiding. There’s also the house cavalier, Ortus, and his lady mother, who is cleaning his ear like a gibbon. (The monkey, not Billy.) Also in attendance are Harrow’s parents, the Reverend Father and the Reverend Mother. (More on them in two shakes of a lamb’s coccygeal vertebrae.)
It has been a long time since Gideon has been to church (same, girl, same), but she can see that not much has changed. Ortus is still a sad weakling, despite being Harrow’s house cavalier. (“Coupling him to Harrow had been rather like yoking a doughnut to a cobra.” Such imagery!) The elderly Blessed Sisters are still old, old, old. And Harrow’s parents, Lady Pelleamena and Lord Priamhark, are still perfectly quiet and waxy, because, well, they’re dead.
STOP THE PRESS. What was that?!? Yep, they’re dead. Have been for years. And only Harrow, Gideon, Crux, and the captain of the guard know it. Remember when Gideon threatened to spill the beans in chapter two? These are the dead beans she meant. She’s been saving this secret for something big.
So hardly anyone knows that Harrow’s parents are dead and that she’s the one who has been running the creepshow, because Harrow mummified them, using a spell she found in a forbidden book. (Hooray for books!) But since she was only ten when she did it, she “hadn’t executed it very well—her parents were fine from the shoulders up, but from the shoulders down they were bad.” (Same, ghoul, same).
I wonder what constitutes bad? Are they each, like, a head and ten undead squirrels in a trenchcoat? Are they both just a head and some primordial goop, held together with duct tape and Spanx? Whatever it is under their robes, no one suspects anything because they’ve “taken” vows of silence. *Church Lady voice* Well, isn’t that convenient?
So here they all are, waiting to hear the big announcement. And it is BIG. Because Harrow has received a missive from the Big Kahuna himself, the Sacred Emperor, the Necrolord Prime, the King of the Nine Renewals. This excites the future skeletons in the room, since their days (and months and years) have been filled lately with bones, and prayers, and not much else.
Harrow reads them the Emperor’s letter, which is full of florid prose and ten-cent words. TL;DR: The Emperor is asking the heir of each house to become one of his liegemen. Each heir will travel to the First House with their house cavalier to study. And if they suck at it, they get voted off the island. Or sent home. One of these things is true.
In case we hadn’t already grasped how exciting this news is for the Ninth House, one of the human attendees has a heart attack and dies when Harrow finishes reading the letter, because the excitement is just too much for his little hermit heart. For reals, everyone is so thrilled at the news!
HAHAHA jk, did I say everyone? I meant everyone, except Ortus’s mother. She protests this assignment. She has already lost her husband to Ninth House duties, surely she cannot be expected to part with her son, too??? She tells them he is too weak, he is too young, he is not fit for duty. (Bone spurs, I’m sure.) It’s a little Lysa Arryn, tbh. His mother argues with Aiglamene and Crux. Gideon is beginning to enjoy the show, thinking that this will prove to be a problem for Harrow. Silly rabbit, tricks are for Gids.
As Ortus and his mother cry on each other, Harrow says the closing prayer, and then everyone files out of the church. Crux roughly escorts Ortus and his mother away, and then the skeletons flood the aisles, making Gideon’s attempt to rush right back to her shuttle impossible. She encounters Aiglamene, her sword-master, and makes small talk about how Harrow is a liar, liar, pants on fire, and Aiglamene tells Gideon she sucks at loyalty, and also how she couldn’t spell obligation if she shoved the letters up her butt. (Ha ha, butt.) Then she gives Gideon back her sword.
Now, Gideon is feeling a little giddy, still thinking she’s heading to her shuttle and leaving the Ninth House in her dust. So she’s a bit cocky when Harrow joins them. She’s about to be all “So long and thanks for all the dead fish,” when Harrow informs her that Ortus and his mother have stolen her shuttle and fled, so Gideon isn’t going anywhere. Cue cartoon of Gideon cracking into a million little pieces and falling to a pile of dust on the floor.
To add insult to injury, Harrow twists the knife by confessing that Gideon was actually very close to pulling off her escape. (Harrow, why do you have to be such a mega-bitch??) Harrow had only accidentally learned of her plan a week before. Horseshoes and hand grenades, amirite? And right before the chapter ends, Muir lobs another hand grenade: Gideon was the one who found Harrow’s parents after they died by suicide.
Thus endeth chapter three.
Welp. Gideon is despondent. She wallows in her cell, doing sit-ups and looking at her magazines, but mostly just lying around in the dark. Gideon has a case of the emos, for sure. Even Harrow feels a bit bad for her. She gives Gideon a week before she shows up outside her cell to torment her again. Gideon doesn’t want to talk to her and continues to exercise. (Have you seen the Gideon workout post? You must!)
Harrow tells Gideon that she has a job for her. Gideon tells her the only job she’d do for Harrow was “if you wanted someone to hold the sword as you fell on it” (like Chiwetel in Serenity!) and other insults. No way, she’s not opening the door. So Harrow pushes a tiny bone earring through the mesh of the door’s peephole, and using bone magic, turns it into a skeletal hand that unlocks the door from the inside and lets her in. Which is a totally different definition of ‘bone to pick.’
Harrow instructs Gideon to get her robe and follow her. She’s taking her to the catacomb. The way their surroundings are described as tiers, which makes me think ‘deathcake’, but also I am imagining a series of underground caverns, like Fraggle Rock. If the Doozers were skeletons.
Harrow unlocks the lift that is going to take them to the depth of Drearburh with a chipkey (which sounds like a cute little monkey, or alternately, a dudebro you meet in Sarasota on spring break) and down they go.
At the bottom of the deathcake, in the dark, dank, black crepe-draped caverns, filled with “bone-choked niches and bad copies of funerary masks,” sits Aiglamene. (Wait, back to the masks for a second – what makes them bad copies? Are they poorly done? Or bad copies like Four from Multiplicity? “Sorry, Aiglamene. That’s leg’s gonna have to come off.”)
Aiglamene is sifting through hundreds of swords. She and Harrow discuss how Ortus sucked at being a swordsman. Gideon tries to escape the room while they’re talking, but Harrow is faster. She tells Gideon she owes her, for it was her shuttle that Ortus escaped in.
Harrow hands Gideon a sword, and explains that Gideon is going to accompany her to the First House as her cavalier. And Gideon is all, “Say what now?” And laughs and laughs and laughs.
But Harrow is not joking. She offers Gideon a deal: come with her to the First House as house cavalier, and she will give Gideon her freedom. For real, this time. No, really. And Gideon is like, psssh, pull the other one, because we all know how good Harrow is at keeping her word. Plus, she doesn’t want to help Harrow, aka Elizabeth Bathory’s less-nice sister, ascend to power.
But then Aiglamene, who Gideon begrudgingly admires, also tells her to take the deal. And Gideon is all, “Say what now?²”
(Brief aside: Here Muir describes Aiglamene’s bone leg as ‘bockety’, which is not a word I knew, so I looked it up and it means ‘unsteady or wobbly’. Which is not all that exciting, but it’s still a fun word to say over and over really fast. Bocketybocketybockety! Now you try it.)
Aiglamene explains that she would go as house cavalier, but she is too old now, and besides, Gideon is the best swordswoman the Ninth House has seen, which makes Gideon blush, because she is not used to niceties. And Aiglamene makes Harrow swear she will keep her word to let Gideon leave after fulfilling her duties at the First House.
Now, it’s one thing to break a promise to your nemesis, but it’s another to go back on your word to a respected elder. So Harrow agrees. And even though Gideon hasn’t *actually* said she’ll do it, the matter is considered settled.
Harrow and Aiglamene continue to talk about Gideon as if she isn’t standing right there, discussing her sword skills. They are fairly certain that even without having had the training, Gideon is good enough with a sword to fool everyone into thinking she’s Harrow’s actual house cavalier.
After telling Gideon again that she needs her, despite hating Gideon’s shiny pink guts, Harrow leaves Gideon and Aiglamene to discuss strategy, because Gideon still needs to learn a few House Cavalier™ moves. And then she and Aiglamene have an almost-touching moment as they get started. And then Aiglamene takes Gideon out for an ice cream at Dreary Queen. (Okay, I made that last bit up, but it sounds good.)
And that’s the end of chapter four. Don’t think that just because it ended without any fighting, or fainting, or heart attacks, that it’s going to be roses here on out! There is so much more action and horror and sarcasm to come! Sooooooooooo much more.
First-time readers: Do you think Harrow will keep her word this time around? Everyone: Would you rather be a world-class swordsperson, or have the ability to do bone magic? I thought this would be an easy answer for me, but I’m not so sure, now that I’m thinking about it. On the one hand, bones to do my bidding. On the other, hitting things with swords. They’re both so cool.
Thanks for joining me again today for another episode of The Great Gothic Bakeoff. I’ll be back next week with a rundown of chapters five and six. Same bockety time, same bockety channel!
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.