“One Flesh, One End”: The Beautiful, Tragic Friendship At The Heart of Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon The Ninth

SPOILERS FOR GIDEON THE NINTH BELOW.

Something about the absolute animosity between Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus lets you know…these two crazy kids love each other to death. That something isn’t the vague, zeitgeisty knowledge I had about the novel before ever picking it up (thanks, blogosphere!); nor was it an errant turn left down the Internet’s archives of scalding lesbian necromancer fan-art (which I would know nothing of *he said, beefing up his Pinterest privacy settings*). And it’s not that the thrashing and back-and-forth don’t convince you there’re plenty of issues to explore in a healthy space such as a therapist’s couch, or….I don’t know, a long-abandoned gothic castle at the heart of empire? It’s that you recognize the fuel behind that “absolute fucking hate” the two girls swear on left and right is only half of the (abusive) story.

What did it for me at the onset was the following: “Harrowhark’s eyes found hers, and that disdainful mask slipped in its blankness; her lips thinned. The people clamoured. Gideon winked” (41). That small moment of camaraderie in the face of two decrepit fossils fighting over the limits of duty informed my perception of the Ninth protagonists more than anything else in those first eighty-six pages of Gideon. The impression it drew on me coloured every scene of animosity, every bizarre Ninth act and order that follows. So for example, one of Nonagesimus’s orders in absentia is that Gideon keep her mouth shut and not talk with anybody—a seemingly mean-spirited order, as any reader will have come to expect from Harrow (91). Yet upon her very first possibility of interaction, what is Nav surprised by? Shyness, and relief thanks to “Harrow’s diktat against talking” despite the overwhelming feeling that she should “yearn to talk” with anyone not of the House she’s unwittingly spent her whole life in (93). Is it a stretch to think this is something Harrow does at least in part for Gideon’s benefit? On first thought, yes; but then again, Gideon and Harrow have grown up together, have beaten each other black and blue over their entire lives, are the absolute fiercest enemies in the oppressive environment of Castle Drearburgh. If there’s anything that such a level of antagonism evokes, it is familiarity. Kinship, too: why else would Nav, upon finding a concealed door, and “out of a complete sense of perversity, tacked the tapestry back up so that” it is completely covered (97)?

And what do Nav’s fantasies tell us? An extended one, based on upwards of a million comic books, can be boiled down to, Gideon goes off to fight for the Cohort and annihilates, near single-handedly, the Empire’s enemies. The crowning flight of fancy, however, sees Gideon imagine Harrowhark opening an envelope full of praise and medals and a fat check all based on Gideon’s role as an “outstanding and very hot” soldier. Yet it’s not the accolades that Nav dreams of but Nonagesimus’s reaction: “Harrow’s lip would curl, and she would drawl something like, Turns out Griddle could swing a sword after all” (126). Funny how the thing that keeps Griddle going, her proverbial “hundred reps,” is Harrow finally showing some appreciation for her skill.

Conversely, Gideon takes little malicious pleasure to see Harrow flustered such as on the occasion of Magnus and Abigail’s anniversary party. The feelings that define the cavalier’s impression of her necromancer are rather more in the line of “amusement and curiosity” at Harrow’s fright (168). I ask you, is that not very much in line of what one friend would feel at the sight of another friend’s flustered self before something that should not awaken nearly this level of agitation?  (And yes, I know a line like “As Harrow smouldered with hatred, Gideon began to enjoy herself” (171) is capsizing my argument somewhat—but I’m acknowledging the snark as something that’s all the more natural for one friend to throw at another on the occasion of their discomfort…I might not be a good friend).

This friendship thing? At this point in the novel, it’s still at the unconscious level; but it’s starting to come through towards the end of Book Two, with a line like “Gideon was forced to give her necromancer the first particle of credit in her life: Harrow did not yell at her” (179). This, at a time when the necromancer’s frustration is mounting after several failures in making progress; once this progress has been made, something even more bizarre happens, from Nav’s point of view: Harrow of flesh and bone, Harrow of the nastiest temper, Harrow tells Gideon, “But for the love of the Emperor [heh], Griddle, you are something else with that sword” (182). In effect, that daydream the Ninth’s cavalier returns to time and again is become reality! Look at out Griddle, following up on those big dreams of hers! Even more strangely, “Harrowhark smiled. This smile was unusual too: it betokened conspiracy, which was normal, except that this one invited Gideon to be part of it. Her eyes glowed like coals with sheer collusion. Gideon didn’t know if she could handle all these new expressions on Harrow: she needed a lie down” (183). It’s a wonderful moment, only slightly ruined by the murdered bodies of our necromantic gang’s Mum and Dad, Abigail and Magnus.

That seems like a good enough moment to move past the seeds of friendship and turn to the tragic aspects of this relationship: the difficulty of trusting, of acknowledging the trust that exists despite a lifelong history of enmity and violence:

“I need you to trust me.”
“I need you to be trustworthy.”
In the thick dimness of the room she watched the black-garbed girl in front of her struggle around a thing that had settled over them like a net; a thing that had fused between them like a badly broken limb, shattered numerous times, healing gnarled and awful. Gideon recognized these strictures all of a sudden: the rope tying her to Harrow and back to the bars of the House of the Ninth. They stared at each other with shared panic.
Harrow said finally, “In what way can I earn your trust?”
“Let us sleep for eight bloody hours and never talk like this again,” said Gideon, and her necromancer relaxed, very minutely.

(209)

Bitter, isn’t it, the way both see the relationship between them? But note that Gideon’s rebuke is not final. Neither is Harrow’s brisk response the promise “to never talk like that again”. As Gideon acknowledges—for the first time—“Too much of this shit, and they’d end up friends” (210). And before I move on, I want to note one more interesting moment; in Harrow’s expression at the close of this conversation, Nav sees something that recalls a younger Reverend Daughter, one without any of the Ninth make-up, with an expression marked by “something not totally removed from Jeannemary’s desperation”. In effect, this scene marks the conscious wounds these two have left on one another but it also showcases the depth at which they know one another. Nonagesimus recognizes that pushing the point of trust further will only force any progress the two have made back; Nav in turn sees through the make-up and begins to come to grips with just how frightened her necromancer is by how serious the Lyctorhood trials have turned out.  

So when a frustrated Harrow needs juice, what’s Gideon to do but say, “You want my juice? I’ll give you juice” (223). As the two prepare to face another trial, with price steep indeed, Harrow has to syphon Gideon’s very life essence. The calm acceptance with which Nav agrees when the Reverend Daughter comes asking takes the latter by surprise: “That’s all it takes, Griddle? That’s all you demand? This is the complex mystery that lies in the pit of your psyche?” And of course it is, of course Nav’s answer is going to be “That’s all I ever demanded…you asswipe” (224) because she doesn’t need the complex motivation that pushes Harrow’s every action, that bizarre mix of guilt and duty and a sprinkle of fanaticism that animate the Reverend Daughter’s every move.

And what of what Gideon awakens in Harrow? Nav has always seen as disgust the treatment offered her by the Ninth House’s putrefying acolytes, particularly that of the Reverend Mother and Father: “their diffidence had been cut through with a phobic flinch: the way you’d look at an unexpected maggot” (102). While Gideon thinks that the “phobic flinch” here is disgust, it is in fact fear at her impossible survival at being poisoned along with the rest of the Ninth’s children in preparation for Harrow’s conception. The Reverent Daughter, however, has not forgotten this; I would posit, not for a single moment in her life, not once when she lays eyes on Nav. Fear, confusion, disquiet—wouldn’t those be very natural reactions to that knowledge? The natural response is violence, exactly what has defined the two Ninth subjects all throughout their lives. Violence can often be mistaken for hatred; indeed, is often birthed from hatred.

Gideon well and truly believes that to be the case: when she tells Palamedes the story of the Reverend Mother and Father’s deaths, she begins the story so: “Harrowhark had hated Gideon the moment she clapped eyes on her, but everyone did” (332). And no, I haven’t forgotten the opening to my own bloody essay—or to the book for that matter, I didn’t read Gideon and Harrow three times for this, you did, shaddap—but what I most enjoy about third-person limited narration is that it is storytelling coloured by the character’s own perceptions, when done right (and you better believe that Tamsyn Muir does it right). Could Gideon be mixing Nonagesimus’s fear for hatred, the way she does her parents’? After all, “tiny Harrow had found her an object of tormentable fascination—prey, rival, and audience all wrapped up in one” (332). I’m not saying childhood besties, but…And it’s only natural that Harrow wouldn’t be able to keep her distance from Gideon Nav; Gideon Nav, who terrified Nonagesimus’s parents “for the rest of their lives,” a reminder of the wholesale slaughter they committed to buy the Ninth’s future by creating their Reverend Daughter (353). Fear and fascination, not hatred of Gideon, define Harrow’s actions towards her; the only hatred is the one Harrowhark feels for herself, clearly shown when Gideon asks her if she’s worth the sacrifice of two hundred Ninth children:

“Of course I wouldn’t be worth it,”Harrow said scornfully. I’m an abomination. The whole universe ought to scream whenever my feet touch the ground. My parents committed a necromantic sin that we ought to have been torpedoed into the centre of Dominicus for. If any of the other Houses knew of what we’d done they would destroy us from orbit without a second’s thought. I am a war crime.

(353)

Like Gideon’s self-hatred, based off the perception that she carries the blame for the Reverend Father and Mother’s deaths, Harrow, too, lashes outwards, at the only friend she can.

The moment that she admits to it, the moment both of them own up to the poison that has turned their lives so toxic—that is the moment when this tragic, beautiful friendship reaches its cathartic peak, when Harrow well and truly falls to pieces:

Harrow’s eyes snapped wide open. The whites blazed like plasma. The black rings were blacker than the bottom of Drearburh. She waded through the water, snatched Gideon’s wet shirt in her fists, and shook her with more violence than Gideon had ever thought her muscularly capable of. Her face was livid in its hate: her loathing was a mortar, it was combustion.
You apologise to me?” she bellowed. “You apologise to me now? You say that you’re sorry when I have spent my life destroying you? You are my whipping girl! I hurt you because it was a relief! I exist because my parents killed everyone and relegated you to a life of abject misery, and they would have killed you too and not give it a second goddamned thought! I have spent your life trying to make you regret that you weren’t dead, all because—I regretted I wasn’t! I ate you alive, and you have the temerity to tell me that you’re sorry?”
There were flecks of spittle on Harrowhark’s lips. She was retching for air.
“I have tried to dismantle you, Gideon Nav! The Ninth House poisoned you, we trod you underfoot—I took you to this killing field as my slave—you refuse to die, and you pity me! Strike me down. You’ve won. I’ve lived my whole wretched life at your mercy, yours alone, and God knows I deserve to  die at your hand. You are my only friend. I am undone without you.”

(356)

This is such a humongous quotation, I know, I know, but I cannot bear to cut a single sentence out. It’s incandescent, a revelatory moment whose emotional force resonates with me the same way as it did the first time I read it, no matter how familiar the words become. Between you and me, Harrow’s words make this essay all but redundant. It’s all there, for the reader to piece together—I’ve done no more than follow these clues, taking some sick pleasure in pouring back and forth through Gideon’s pages, as my literary kin is wont to do.

What more can I say about it all? Gideon, Harrow…they’re idiot kids—you can’t help loving them even when you want to beat them to death with a newspaper. If you’ve read this grotesquely long jaunt across one of the most engaging friendships in the recent SFF dreamscape—you’re a patient human being, you are. (Thank you, so, so much). Would you like me to follow the thread of this friendship throughout Harrow the Ninth? Hint: lobotomizing yourself for a friend is not all it’s cracked up to be. Or would you prefer I look at something different? Something like “‘Sex Pal’: Palamedes Is The Best Friend You’ll Ever Need” or maybe, “‘I love a captive listener’: The Gleeful Sadism of Cytherea the First”? Let me know!

Note (Edited in after some twitter reactions): I’d like to point out, the homoeroticism and romantic elements of the relationship between Gideon and Harrow are not lost on me – what I’ve tried to do with this essay is to examine the aspects of their relationship that are defined by friendship. I mean no offense or ellision of any kind. I very much plan on getting into these aspects in my follow up.

3 thoughts on ““One Flesh, One End”: The Beautiful, Tragic Friendship At The Heart of Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon The Ninth

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  1. Excellent analysis! Please do the one you’re planning for “Harrow the Ninth.” I say this because as confusing as the sequence of the narrative was, I was able to figure out what Harrow did to herself. I know many other readers did NOT come to the same conclusion.

    Yes, I have my personal thoughts about this series, but it’s still an intriguing story that I want to read “Nona the Ninth” and “Alecto the Ninth.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I will certainly do more on the Locked Tomb series, the first two novels have really captured my imagination and I am so looking forward to reading Nona the Ninth in a month and a half.

      I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on the series at large.

      Like

      1. I’ve written reviews on both books. But, in short, I enjoyed the story more than the plot because there are too many plot holes in this series so far. However, because the story is so intriguing, I do want to continue reading the series. I might write a post about my thoughts about the series. It’s not my favorite, but I don’t hate it either.

        Liked by 1 person

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