When I was growing up in an evangelical home, there was a faction of parents who wanted media to never portray bad behavior, not even for the purposes of showing that it was bad. This led to such censorship as VeggieTales changing The Bunny Song so he’s singing about foods he doesn’t like instead of singing about not going to church or school. It rendered the song meaningless, but hey, the parents were mollified.
Not many in the book community today would be offended by an animated zucchini singing “I won’t go to church,” but I find myself thinking of those parents when I witness controversies like Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth being condemned as a slavery romance. There’s a sizeable subculture in the book world that doesn’t want to see bad behavior portrayed in books at all, not even if it’s being explicitly addressed and interrogated.
[Note: This post contains some spoilers for Crimson Peak and Mexican Gothic.]
Over the past ten years or so, there have been a series of cases in the book world where readers have called out books that were meant to depict idealized love stories but actually romanticized deeply toxic, abusive, and manipulative relationships. First came the criticisms of the Twilight series, many of them stemming from a viral LiveJournal post characterizing Edward as an abuser; a few years later, a series of romance novels starring Nazis prompted widespread denunciations, especially after one of them was nominated for a RITA award. The book community has come to accept that dynamics such as teenagers in relationships with much older people, captives in love with captors who have the ability to kill them, and controlling, manipulative romantic partners wouldn’t be considered healthy relationships in real life and shouldn’t be presented as romantic ideals in fiction. But a subset of readers seem to not understand what, exactly, is being objected to or why it is a problem, leading to the criticism spilling over from category romance into other genres that portray unhealthy relationship dynamics in extremely different contexts. When this happens, as with Gideon the Ninth, we risk hurting the very people we’re trying to help. Problematic fictional relationships, correctly portrayed, can be a powerful tool for understanding and addressing real-life abusive relationships.
Much of the reckoning around relationships in books has centered on adult category romance and YA paranormal romance, and in those cases, it’s all for the best. In these genres, it’s indeed very important to portray romantic relationships with healthy dynamics, because the relationships in romance are intended to be fantasies that readers can picture themselves in. But relationships don’t serve the same function in every genre. Books under the horror/Gothic/dark fiction umbrella (which includes Gideon the Ninth) often explore dysfunctional, abusive relationships. Classic Gothics like Dracula and The Mysteries of Udolpho feature women under the control of abusive, manipulative men, and the trend continues in modern Gothics like Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 film Crimson Peak and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic. Just as these books provide a safe place for readers 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.
Modern sci-fi has also been a fruitful ground for exploring complex, ambiguous relationships and power imbalances while maintaining a safe separation from reality. Many of N.K. Jemisin’s books, such as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, feature protagonists trapped within power structures they can’t control and forced to make allies and build relationships, including sexual relationships, with people they may not like or trust and who have vastly more power than the protagonist (up to and including literal gods). In The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, Murderbot’s complex relationship with Dr. Mensah stems from the fact that she owns Murderbot; in their world’s legal system, it is a slave with no rights. Gideon the Ninth, where Gideon is an unwilling indentured servant to Harrow, draws from both these literary traditions.
The important factor, then, is not whether such relationships are shown, but whether they are romanticized. Twilight was rightly criticized because it seemed completely unaware that there might be anything odd about a relationship between a teenager and someone eighty years older than her. But problematic relationships do happen in real life, and as such, novels can provide valuable guidance surrounding it. Shauna Morgan, host of the Get Literated Podcast, shared with me an instance from their own life: “Reading Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan helped me realize my relationship at the time was codependent and unhealthy.” 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.
Some may object that it’s fine to portray harmful relationships, but only as long as they involve obvious villains and are unambiguously condemned within the story. Most Gothics fall into this category. In Crimson Peak, Edith initially trusts Thomas, only to have her trust dashed when she discovers that she’s only the latest in a series of young women that Thomas and Lucille have lured to their house in order to murder them for their fortunes, all while engaging in their own incestuous relationship. Noemí in Mexican Gothic deeply distrusts the Doyle family from the very beginning, believing that their son married her cousin for her money and now intends to kill her; her suspicions are confirmed when she discovers that they intend to use her and her cousin to bring new genetic material into their centuries-old incestuous dynasty, which has a symbiotic relationship with a fungus that lives in their house. In both these cases, the abuse is clear-cut and there’s little question about who the audience is meant to side with (although Crimson Peak does reserve some sympathy for Thomas).
By comparison, Harrow and Gideon’s relationship is a very different beast. Gideon is an indentured servant bound to a life of servitude to Harrow, the heir of the necromantic Ninth House; Harrow has spent her entire childhood taking her out her own guilt by abusing Gideon. When she forces Gideon to become her cavalier, it’s initially a reluctant alliance of mutual hate, but as they unwillingly work together, they begin to rely on each other and understand each other better, though their relationship is still dysfunctional and codependent.
Clearly there are major differences that distinguish Gideon the Ninth from both the deprecated problematic romances and from the more typical Gothics. In the first place, readers classifying Gideon the Ninth as “a romance” fall into the common mistake of assuming that any book about queer characters must be a romance; the book itself is not at all clear on that point. Throughout, Harrow and Gideon seem unsure whether they should treat each other as weird pseudo-siblings, weird pseudo-girlfriends, weird pseudo-colleagues, or what. (Personally, I favor the “weird pseudo-siblings” interpretation.) But in any case, certainly the book is not portraying Gideon and Harrow as a healthy model that people should emulate. It’s a dark and messed-up relationship that exists within a dark and messed-up world. A book in which someone massacres 200 children is not meant to be a model for behavior, but rather an exploration of the bad things people do and the reasons they do them.
And there’s another factor at play in Gideon the Ninth that isn’t present in other neo-Gothics like Crimson Peak. Gideon the Ninth is queer. There’s a common tendency to judge queer stories by a different standard than their heterosexual counterparts: sapphic romances are often considered more shallow and formulaic than heterosexual romances, while queer love scenes are interpreted as more explicit than love scenes between straight characters. In the same vein, queer characters and their relationships undergo a high level of scrutiny and their mistakes and imperfections are sharply criticized. But queer characters should not be required to act as exemplars simply because they’re queer. Queer books should be allowed the same freedom to explore complex, problematic relationships that straight books have.
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. Queer people can easily fall into relationships with extremely uneven power dynamics, such as if a teenager who gets kicked out of her house and has to move in with her older girlfriend to avoid being homeless. As Gideon and Harrow navigate their way through perils, betrayals, and shaky alliances, they lay bare the toxicity and dysfunction underlying these dynamics. And, despite the necromancy and space travel, a lot of it feels distinctly relatable.
For readers who are experiencing unhealthy relationships themselves, the very ambiguity of the Gideon-Harrow relationship can be valuable as a way to help them come to terms their own experiences, which are rarely as clear-cut as stories like Crimson Peak. Abusers may be kind under other circumstances; bad relationships may still have positive elements; two genuinely good people may nevertheless have a toxic relationship. Books that portray these kinds of relationships can help readers accept that their own relationships may still be toxic, even if they also contain genuine affection and care.
To be clear, none of this is meant as an outcry that “cancel culture has gone too far” or that we should stop being critical of how we portray relationships in books. We can and should continue to call out books that romanticize toxic relationships. But likewise—and for many of the same reasons—we can and should support books that interrogate and unpack toxic relationships. And there should always be room for different readers to reinterpret and reevaluate what a fictional relationship means.
The reassessment of fictional romance has done a lot of good. I think we can all agree we’d be better off without Nazi romances. But not every book romanticizes its central relationships, and books that are internally critical of their characters’ problematic relationships have their own important place. Gideon the Ninth is one of the latter. It’s a valuable read if you’ve ever found yourself in a dysfunctional queer relationship.
Although, hopefully, yours didn’t involve necromancy.
Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist who lives in Altadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient mammals. Her first novel, Among the Red Stars, came out in October 2017.