Readers looking for a thrilling romp this season will want to pick up Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel. Gideon the Ninth is one of Bookish’s must-read books of this fall, and it isn’t hard to see why. The novel follows Gideon, an orphan-turned-cavalier for necromancer Harrowhark in a deadly tournament on an abandoned planet. There’s murder, mayhem, and plenty of humor in store for readers diving into this world. We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Muir about the book that most inspired her debut, modern language in fantasy worlds, and what readers can expect next.
Bookish: In three words, what can readers expect from Gideon the Ninth?
Tamsyn Muir: Swords. Blood. Bones.
Bookish: The cover art is incredible. I know most authors don’t have control over the cover design process. What was the process like for you?
TM: The cover is absolutely amazing. Tommy Arnold, the artist, and Jamie Stafford-Hill, the designer, really killed it. We figured out pretty early that the cover should be Gideon. That wasn’t ever really a question. A lot of the covers in fashion at the moment feature symbols but we wanted Gideon. The first time I saw the sketch, I had a moment. It was beautiful. I could not have been luckier. The second cover will feature Harrow.
Bookish: The book is broken into acts like a play. What brought about that decision?
TM: I didn’t write Gideon with a classical three-act structure in mind. I really wanted to separate out the movements of the book. I wrote it knowing that every single act was going to contain a really big moment. The structure I planned didn’t have that kind of rise and fall you get from the three-act play. Acts are fun to work with it. In Shakespeare some acts are only a few pages. I first wrote Gideon broken into acts but not chapters. I had to go in later and put in chapter breaks.
Bookish: The language in your novel is really fascinating. We’re deep in a fantasy world but there are also details (like pizza and hotel pillow mints) that feel embedded in modern times. How did you decide what to include and why?
TM: In the beginning, I went all in–it was kitchen sink. I put in as many stupid, nonsensical references as possible and it worked! I didn’t break the worldbuilding too badly. I wanted to work against fantasy worldbuilding that has its own made-up terminology. I don’t worldbuild heavily when I write. Some authors fill notebooks, and I had three tiny pages. I wanted fresh-feeling slang and Kiwi idioms–I wrote the book the way I speak. I use a lot of memes and the language of the internet, but we also don’t want the book to feel aged. Hopefully it doesn’t make the book feel inaccessible to anyone completely divorced of the digital age. The only thing we took out, which I find hilarious in retrospect, was Gideon calling something “bananas.” It was the right thing to do.
Bookish: What were some of the influences behind this story?
TM: I read widely. My favorite book in the world is Catch-22. I’ve always had a real admiration for books that can do comedy and tragedy on the page because they have to work harder. I think a book has to be funnier if the humor sits alongside material that breaks your heart, and it has to be sadder if it’s making you crack up. From a technical and aesthetic standpoint, Catch-22 is probably my most direct influence.
Bookish: Would you rather be a cavalier or a necromancer?
TM: Probably a cavalier. When my back’s against the wall, my instinct is to get things out of the way. I think necromancers have to be thinkers. I’m many things, but in a tough situation I’m not a thinker: I’m a doer and a hitter. But also, I have tiny arms, I can barely lift anything, and I trip over my own feet. I’m not really a cavalier either. If there was a third role like eating popcorn on the sidelines, that would be me.
Bookish: Choice is a theme that comes up more than once in this book. Gideon doesn’t mind working alongside Harrow as long as she’s given a choice, and another character chooses to leave her home planet even though she knows she’ll die. What drew you to this theme?
TM: You can boil a lot of work down into its essential themes, and choice is the big one in Gideon. Choice matters a lot to Gideon from a character perspective because she hasn’t been given much choice throughout her life. Being able to make a decision rather than being pushed into one was one of the things I wanted to explore in the book. In fact, choice is actually a huge part of the second book, too–reflecting on the importance of the ability to make a choice and how that matters more than the choice you make.
Bookish: The ending leaves readers with a few hints about what they can expect from the next book. What are you most excited to explore in future installments?
TM: There are going to be a lot of swordfights, betrayals, and off-color jokes. And there’s definitely going to be murder–murder by the bucket. Don’t get attached to anyone.
Bookish: For fans of Gideon the Ninth, what do you recommend they read next?
TM: Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. It’s an absolute doorstop. It’s a gripping adventure story, and it’s got an amazing queer relationship between two female leads. It’s high fantasy but is has a lot of the themes I hope to put into my own novel.
Readers can get something lighthearted and delicious from Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh. It’s a gorgeous novella about two guys falling in love. It’s absolutely beautiful and everyone should read it.
Tamsyn Muir is a horror, fantasy and sci-fi author whose short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. A Kiwi, she has spent most of her life in Howick, New Zealand, with time living in Waiuku and central Wellington. She currently lives and works in Oxford, in the United Kingdom. Gideon the Ninth is her first novel.