Gideon, Harrow, and Mr Bones’ Wild Ride: Tamsyn Muir on Writing, Necromancy, and Fanfic

Tamsyn Muir is the Locus Award-winning and Nebula Award-nominated author of Gideon the Ninth, book one in The Locked Tomb trilogy. Harrow the Ninth, the hotly anticipated sequel published earlier this week. To celebrate, the author dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where she talked necromancy (obviously), favorite sentences, favorite weapons, Draco in Leather Pants, fanfic hopes, jokes and memes left on the cutting room floor, the Final Fantasy fandom, the Homestuck fandom, Alecto the Ninth, and much, much more.

We kept this highlights reel below SPOILER-FREE, so you’ll have to visit the AMA yourself if you want all the fun SPOILER-Y stuff!

[Editor’s note: Questions and responses may have been edited for length and clarity.]

What’s your favorite sentence in Harrow the Ninth?

There are too many. I will say “Get down here. Fight me,” makes me laugh every time—that whole exchange makes me laugh every time; I am very easily pleased.

So what is it about necromancy that captivates you so?

I get asked this occasionally and I’m always ashamed to admit that even I don’t quite know. I think the first book about necromancy I ever read was when I was about nine on holiday in Fiji and it had been left in the hotel library. This is one of those “books you remember in a fever dream” cases, and nobody will ever tell me what it is because I’m not entirely sure I didn’t imagine it, and even know I’m like “the king was a necromancer and also an uncle… I think necromancy involved paste… his niece was a character……… it was very weird….. ”

I love body horror and the magic of sacrifice and I am deeply frightened by corpses. I also read a lot of medical books as a child (Merck’s Manual made me who I am). Necromancy can mean so many things to so many people—like, literally it is simply ‘divination by the dead/corpse’—and in the genre we have diversified what it means so much that it has become a very woolly idea. I think that’s great. You can do anything with it. I have focused very heavily on death and the body rather than the ghost—though the ghost plays quite a big part too—and I think there is a weird joy to writing the kind of thing you’re very scared of!

What’s your favorite weapon from your books?

I have SUCH a soft spot for Naberius’s stupid-ass trick trident knife. I love weapons as storytelling; Naberius Tern’s choice in sidearms says quite a lot about Naberius.

What’s a joke or meme you had to take out of each book?

In Gideon the Ninth, Gideon mentions that she wants to get off Mr Bones’ Wild Ride. I think that was the last meme to go. I tried to keep it in so hard. I did everything. My editor told me I would be rewarded in heaven if I lost it, but I would rather go on Mr Bones’ Wild Ride in hell. (It is, admittedly, right smack bang in quite a tense moment. I guess it was not the time to go on Mr Bones’ Wild Ride.)

In Harrow the Ninth, right in the very first chapter, and it was a placeholder and I knew I couldn’t keep it, Ianthe gets told to “Begone, thot.” I’m not comfortable jacking AAVE even if it is and was a widespread meme; it would have fallen flat; but ‘thot’ is so satisfying in the mouth, and is so exquisite a word, that I used it as a placeholder. And I still laugh every time I think about Harrow, of all people, calling Ianthe a thot in that moment.

Gideon the Ninth and particularly Harrow the Ninth are very “structure forward” books. What have been your favorite ways to play with structure in these books?

I’m ashamed to say that I never really think about playing with structure—the book sort of demands a specific method and I roll with it. Harrow’s structure went a little To The Lighthouse on me—there’s that distinct crossbar in the middle—and while there’s a relationship there to classical Athenian tragedy, it was not written in accordance with those rules either. (You can see that as I have a huge larf with myself over having a parodos and epiparodos.) It’s a balancing act no matter what you do. I do love having a structure that creates questions, and playing with time is a very easy way of doing that. The Tordotcom Publishing design team were right behind me on that one, because they are wonderful: I’m very fond of what they did with chapter headings (which were also wonderful in Gideon the Ninth).

How did you come up with Ianthe’s personality? She’s absolutely horrible, terrifying, and uniquely funny at the same time.

I love Ianthe and could write a lot about Ianthe, but one central thing I am doing with Ianthe is playing around with a trope male characters often get to be, and one frequently found in slash but so little for the lesbians: Ianthe is in many ways my gay Draco In Leather Pants. (There’s a reason she calls Harrow Harry!) The Draco In Leather Pants trope—the hyper-privileged, drawling blonde with daddy issues who sulks erotically in a corner—is perpetually male. Here, it’s Ianthe. And Ianthe blows—she’ll never be a true Draco In Leather Pants because although the DILP gets great sassy lines, very few of them are aimed at himself. Ianthe’s humanity—what there is of it—comes from having a sense of humour; it is why she is sympathetic and also why she is dangerous.

Ianthe is another character who sprung, horrible and fully-formed, the moment I knew her situation. She has always been the way she was, as has Coronabeth, and as has Naberius. All three of the Third inform each other—and Ianthe, the shadow queen of the trio, was herself from day one. The only thing she missed was nearly being called ‘Abella’. I think that was a hangover from the days when I wanted everyone’s name to have syllables matching their house.

You’re asked to pitch Alecto the Ninth in the most misleading but technically accurate way possible… how do you describe it?

Fallout from a terrible house move causes generational ructions. John fries some bacon in his ute.

From u/norunaway: “I have been telling all my friends that Alecto the Ninth is going to be a heist novel. Can you please confirm this, and if so, also confirm that there will be many heart crimes.”

I had to go back and look to see if I’d ever mentioned that I wanted a heist in Alecto, because otherwise you are 1. psychic or 2. hiding in my drywall—there IS actually a heist in Alecto. It’s not the world’s greatest heist, and is undertaken by idiots, but there’s a heist. If you’re in my house, can you tell me if turning off the boiler at night has helped the pipes? I assume you’re between the walls.

After Alecto the Ninth, do you have plans for more works in the universe? Also, when will you be allowed to read the fanfic?

I do have some ideas, and I’d love to write them—more as kind of a “hehe, have this for your delectation, five people who want this” rather than a continuation of the story. My editor showed me the AO3 entry for the Crux/Teacher fic and I still don’t know if it is a fake or not. I don’t want to know. I need to live in a world where that question is not answered.

One day I will get to read all the fanfic. That day will not come until I have totally washed my hands and cannot get sued by the Discord for making the whole plot about the love that never died, i.e. Crux/Teacher (Intolerable CruTe).

So what kind of fanfic do you hope is out there?

Fics I hope the fandom has written (these can be ideas if they have not written them yet):

  • Story where Silas is bitten by an ant, which he thinks at first is OK, but then a few days later it gets worse and worse and Colum takes him to the waiting room, and they sit in there for around five to six hours as it isn’t that bad, and then the doctor gives him a cream to put on it. Fluff/angst
  • AU where they all go to Rainbow’s End and Ianthe gets giardia off the log flume. Should be good for 40-50k
  • I remember a story my brother loved when we were kids in Pokemon fandom where Pokemon are illegal for some reason and Pikachu got put down by the state, so Ash had to do Pokemon fights in illegal back-alley cockfighting arenas. How about instead of Ash it’s Harrow, and instead of Pikachu it was Gideon, and Harrow’s new Pokemon is a Digimon so it totally rips? I see this as being tasteful erotica.

(All their fanfic is beautiful in my eyes, and everything they have done is right. I once wrote a goddamned Final Fantasy story where, as a teenager, I said to myself very earnestly, “I’m going to make this reminiscent of 9/11!!”. I love fandom. I love my fandom even if we have never met. Every fanfic they have written is my favourite even if I have never read them. I wonder what pairings they like?? Am I about to sink all their ships in Alecto? Love to all fanfics.)

Speaking of which, you were an active member of a few fandoms. Are there any you’ve specifically drawn inspiration from for this series?

I started out in Animorphs fandom (shout-out to TCDB) and spent most of my life in Final Fantasy fandom, although I know I’m very associated with Homestuck! To be honest, it was Final Fantasy that taught me everything I knew, because fandom looked so different there—for one thing there was a much more even spread in terms of gender, and a sense of struggle for who ‘owned’ the fandom (back then it was definitely a kind of touchy ‘GIRLS DON’T PLAY VIDEO GAMES’ so every bedraggled video-gaming girl kind of huddled in one place together, oozing sympathy). The humour side of fandom—and God bless every part of fandom that turns out parodies—was a kind of Venn diagram. I read through Fritz Fraundorf and Uncreativity like my life depended on it. There was this sense you could do anything. Being in Final Fantasy fandom was so weird in the first place that it didn’t matter that you had someone churning out a long, detailed band AU where Cloud Strife was a bassist when on the other hand you had a hard mil-SF take on SeeD and Garden where Squall Leonhart was basically doing Space Vietnam. (And the ship wars happened no matter what. We were all obsessed back then with whose ship had the most EVIDENCE. These scars? *EXHALES* They come from the Cloud/Tifa, Cloud/Aeris wars.)

We read everything, we wrote everything, genre had very little meaning. I feel this has had a huge impact on me and my writing now. Nobody gave a hot shit if you were writing a grimdark zombie apocalypse Kingdom Hearts story or a thing about Zidane doing a bakeoff. People only cared about Ships. Which was bad in a different way, but as no pitch requires you to admit what side of the Cid/Vincent line you were on, all writing after Final Fantasy is freeing.

I spent a couple years in Homestuck and it was a very fun time—it’s great to be in a community watching something drop, it was wonderful to be on Tumblr, and I think that fandom produced an disproportionate amount of SFF genre pros. I don’t think I took anything specific from it, though, except that Gideon Nav is absolutely wearing Dave Strider’s sunglasses.

Can you tell us more about your upcoming novella, Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower?

I have loved fairytales and fairytale retellings for a very long time, and I think we’re currently enjoying a moment where we are undergoing fairytale princesses fighting for their rights, taking up the sword, and dealing with often-hideous situations with very little acknowledgement of how shit a hand princesses got dealt. I’m a big fan of Eleanor Farjeon’s fairytales, which are very mannered, and Nesbit’s exploration of the ordinary in the fairytale, but me being me I wanted something a little different altogether—I wanted what I used to call HATCHET: RAPUNZEL. I also wanted a story where trauma does not necessarily leave you a stronger person. It is not a story where terrible situations and baptisms by fire make a fairytale heroine wonderful. It is a story about enforced change and assigned identities and how easy it is to do evil when you are unhappy.

I wanted to write a story about a princess who was not at all rebellious, brave or upright. Her name is Princess Floralinda. In many ways she is as dumb as a box of hair. I love her and I know I should not.

Any plans for more short stories like “The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex“? What else is next?

I’d love to [write more short stories], and I have lots of ideas, but I probably am not going to let myself until the whole trilogy is done because I shouldn’t snack between meals. (Also, I’m really excited about writing so many other things too—I don’t want to be the type of writer who stays in one universe ad infinitum until she’s on her fourth in-universe series writing about how everyone’s grandma hooked up. THE LOCKED TOMB: GRANDMA HOOKUPS is not on the menu.) (I think Harrow the Ninth was THE LOCKED TOMB: GRANDMA HOOKUPS now that I think about it.)

I’ve got a couple of standalone novels I can’t wait to get to after The Locked Tomb is over—also a couple of short stories I’m on the hook for, and some other writing jobs that keep me going. I really like variety, so it will be nice to have other stuff in the offing. (I finished a novella just after I wrote HarrowPrincess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower — coming out in November this year, and it was great to have a break.)

 

And that’s just the spoiler-free questions. For all the goodies with spoilers, head on over to the full AMA.

Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth are both out now from Tordotcom Publishing.

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