In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.
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 Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth to someone who wants to know what the (considerable) hype is all about. I think the novel’s muchness is one of its greatest strengths—this is the kind of book that demands to be discussed solely in exclamations: Necromancers! Swords! Skeletons! Secrets! Space castles! Giant bone monsters! Dirtbag romance! 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 what happens 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.
In the months since its release, I’ve heard some grousing about the slow burn of the first half, but I had so much fun marinating in its weird-ass wavelength that I didn’t notice. Is it a lot of work, keeping track of eight houses’ worth of characters? Probably, but Gideon isn’t exactly aces at it either, so you’re in good company. Is the plot byzantine, a wander through a maze of dead ends? Duh, it’s a murder mystery set in a an ancient space castle. My sheer love for it helped convince me it would win the Nebula Award this year (it didn’t), so I can no longer say with confidence that it will win the Hugo, but it has won my heart. And if Gideon heard me say anything so sentimental, she’d kick my ass.
An earlier version of this article appeared in May 2020.
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.