Gideon the Ninth: The Best Fantasy Book of 2019

Lesbian sci-fi space necromancers in an Agatha Christie style murder mystery. That’s the premise of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. And, honestly, if you’re not already sold, I don’t think we can be friends. 

In all seriousness, though, this is one of the best fantasy books to come out in the last few years. It represents a certain cutting edge of fantasy, fantasy that pushes boundaries, includes marginalized voices, resists tropes, and is, in general, really freaking sick. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants something lively and full of personality.

The plot of the story (no major spoilers) follows Harrowhark, a necromancer princess who lives in the coldest reaches of the solar system, and her sword-slinging cavalier, Gideon. They hate each other and have since birth, but unfortunate circumstances force them to work together. They travel to the home of the immortal emperor, where they must compete with eight other pairs of necromancer and cavalier for the privilege of becoming one of the emperor’s lyctors. What ensues is a tension filled, nail biting mystery as the necromancers and cavaliers engage in a battle royale to solve the clues that the emperor left behind. Solving each of the clues requires coordination between necromancer and cavalier, something Gideon and Harrow have nothing of. 

The book does three things exceedingly well. The first is character. Gideon and Harrow are some of the most fun and likeable protagonists I have ever read. Gideon is consistently badass, sarcastic, blockheaded, and endearing. As the narrator of the story, her voice practically screams from the page. She has such an iconic way of telling stories. Harrow is a perfect foil. Cool, collected, blisteringly intelligent, and often cruel. The dynamic between them is at times humorous, at times frustrating, and at times it’s the most heartwarming thing in the world. In short, I think it’s brilliant. 

The story also has this fantastic intricacy of plot. With a cast of nearly twenty named characters, it might seem intimidating. But each one is so unbelievably memorable that you won’t forget a name. And the ways in which they interact are precise, believable, and complex. The ever changing dynamics of the characters and the mystery of the mansion and of who the emperor is and what it will take to become his lyctor make for some tremendously engaging reading. I was up until four in the morning finishing this book, and I guarantee you will too. 

Finally, the magic of the story is wonderful. Necromancy is a hard magic system. It is bound by rules and requires knowledge and training in order to use. At the same time, though, it’s rules are never explained outright to the reader. We have to piece together the definitions of terms like thanergy or thalergy, we have to learn what occeus matter is. And the discovery process is amazingly fun. It never feels frustrating. No, it always feels like we’re solving a mystery right alongside the characters. Gideon, the narrator, knows as much about necromancy as the reader. Her biting cynicism about the intricacies of necromancy as she swings a massive, ten pound broadsword around with wanton abandon never ceases to crack me up. 

Long story short, I think this is an amazing book. Harrow the Ninth, the sequel, is wildly different but just as pleasing to read. I highly recommend this book for people who like stylized writing, complex character dynamics, and a fascinating and original magic system. 

The Weight of the Seagull

Jake leaves the house and goes down to the rocks next to the sea and takes a cigarette from his pocket but the lighter won’t light because of the wind, even though he shields it with his hand and shakes it. He puts the cigarette and the lighter away. Scratches his head. 

The rocks are wet as the edge of the ocean swallows itself and throws it all back up, the waves are like a tongue flicking the rocks and spraying spit everywhere. Jake brushes the sea spray from his forehead. His suit is wet. He wonders if the rental company will make him pay extra for the laundry and the dead fish salt smell. 

One of his relatives finds him — Samantha’s aunt, maybe? He never got his in-laws straight, Samantha had a lot of them, biggy happy family that was, cousins and little brats, his family had been small, only child, when they came out to Deer Isle each year it was just Mom Pop and him, that was fine, that was how he liked it, got to run around all day on the rocks. i

Fuck. The relative is saying something. He thinks she’s an aunt. Maybe her name was Laura or something. “Jake? Jake? Are you alright?”

“What?”

“Are you alright?”

“My lighter isn’t catching.”

“Do you want to come inside?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Everybody’s worried about you.”

He shrugs. “I’m fine.”

“Come inside.”

He comes inside. The wind pushes against the windows and the house, it’s old, real old, been in his family since forever, more or less, it protests the wind with a noisy yowl. Somebody hands Jake a little sandwich the kind with the umbrella toothpick in the white bread with no crust and too much mayonnaise and then a hand pats his shoulder. 

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

Jake nods along with the litany. They had the service yesterday, it was nice, Jake said some words that he wrote down on a piece of paper, he wrote them while the minister read from the bible, had to borrow a pen from the person sitting next to him. 

They all thought it would be a good idea to come to Deer Isle one last time. Jake’s selling the house. Last hurrah sort of deal.

Celebration of life, they called it. The funeral, that is. They made sure not to call it a funeral, Sam had been specific about that. Jake swallows his sandwich and rubs the mayonnaise off of the stubble on his upper lip. Forgot a razor. That was stupid. Sam says he looks like shit with a beard. 

He’s on the couch with Laura and half cousin and third nephew. Third nephew is telling a funny story about Sam when she was in college. Jake’s heard it before. He wonders if he should be doing the same thing. Thinking about her, that is. He’s not, not really. 

One time he walked the Long Trail in Vermont. Whole of Vermont. Three hundred miles. When he finished he realized that after that whole month of walking he just remembered only little snippets of it. When he tried to wrap his head around how fucking large Vermont was and had walked across the whole thing, he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t hold the image all together. So he didn’t, he let the sense of how long he had walked just shatter apart, and left himself with only the snippets and not a sense of having done anything all that important. 

Samantha’s life is a bit like that, he thinks. He hasn’t even cried.

The house on Deer Isle has a large backyard with all the right things to keep a group of people entertained in it. A grill and a badminton net and a patio and all that stuff that Samantha bought. Jake presumes the relatives all have drinks in the backyard and talk about Samantha, he only presumes because he’s not there. He’s watching the sea. 

It’s almost night. The wind has died down a bit. Waves aren’t as fierce, and the tide’s low. Kelp clings to the rocks like hair. It’s slimy beneath his fingers. Jake’s lighter finally works. He smokes a bit. 

Best part about Deer’s Island is the stars. He tilts his neck a bit to see them and sucks down a lungful of rat poison and night air and happy chemicals. There’s Orion’s Belt. There’s the Big Dipper. There’s the North Star. He doesn’t know any more constellations. 

There’s a noise on the rocks. He looks away from the sky. Below him twenty feet, is a boy. 

The boy leaps from rock to rock. His feet are bare and they cling to the slippery kelp like they’re made of fucking superglue, or something. He’s wearing a swimsuit with a cartoon animal on it, Jake thinks he watched that show when he was young. The moonlight — moon’s on the horizon, waxing gibbous or something, bright enough to reflect on the water — touches the edges of the boys bare shoulders and limns them with soft white shine. 

A wave rears back, pushes against the rock, and cascades into the air. The shower rains down around the boy and his laughter is like a handful of rattling sea glass. He lifts his hands to either side of him and splutters with droplets in his mouth. 

The boy turns and sees Jake. Jake freezes. He feels like he shouldn’t be here. No, wait, real life kind of returns to him, the boy shouldn’t be here, no one else lives on the island.

The boys waves. 

Jake waves back. 

The boy climbs up the rocks and sits next to Jake. “Hi.”

“How’d you get here?”

The boy’s legs dangle off the edge of the rock and he kicks them. Sometimes the ocean spray gets daring and reaches an impish hand to tickle the underside of the boy’s feet before withdrawing quickly. 

“Can I tell you a story?”

“What?”

“Mom tells me stories when I’m sad.”

“I’m not sad.”

“Oh.”

“You can tell me a story.”

“Can I?”

Jake shrugs like, sure, I won’t stop you.

“Okay. Here’s the story. Yesterday on the rocks over there there were two seagulls. One of them had a piece of bread in its mouth and was walking around like she was the happiest seagull there ever was. And the other seagull didn’t have any bread. So he squawked, ducked his head, looked all pitiful. Finally the other seagull gave him a little piece of bread, and flew away.”

Jake chuckles. “That’s the story?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know if that was a very good story.”

“What do you know about stories?”

“What happened next?”

“He dropped the bread on accident.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah.”

“How’d you know it was a girl seagull?”

The boy smiles. “I don’t know. But it made the story better.”

Jake looks sideways at him. “Yeah?”

“I have to go. Bye mister.”

“Wait, are you going to be okay on the rocks? It’s slippery.”

The boy is already gone. He scampers down the side of the rocks and leaves Jake’s view. Jake stands up abruptly and runs after him. He keeps himself low, one hand hovering just above the rocks in case he slips. The wind snags in his hair and blows it in his eyes. He runs until he reaches the edge of the rocks, on little promontory overlooking the ocean, but he can’t see the boy anywhere. 

He tosses the cigarette into the waves and goes inside. 

“Who are you going to sell the house to?” someone asks. It’s the next morning. 

Jake looks over at the person. “Who are you?”

They fade away into the background. 

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Someone else touches his shoulder. 

That night Jake comes to the rocks again. He tells himself that the boy won’t be there again. He’s just out for a smoke. Getting away from the stuffy relatives. He tells himself all of this. But when the boy is there again playing on the rocks, Jake waves to him, calls out to him. 

The boy looks up. “Hello, mister!” He scampers over to Jake. 

“Hey, kid,” Jake says. “Pretty night.”

The boy turns to face the ocean and leans out over the edge of the rocky drop off. He lifts one hand to his forehead, like a lookout. The wind is sharp. The boy has moonlight in his eyes. “Sure is,” the boy says. 

“What did you do today?”

“I swam, and I played in the water, and I collected mussels and–” 

“Sounds like a good day.”

“Pretty good.”

“Who is taking care of you?”

“Can I tell you a story?”

“Another one?”

“It’s a sad one.”

“Okay.”

They stand next to each other and watch the tide come in. 

“I don’t have anyone to play with,” the boy says. 

They’re silent for a little. 

“Is that the story?” Jake asks. 

“Yeah.”

Jake sits down. He turns his head to the side. 

“Why are you crying?” the boy asks. 

“I don’t know,” Jake says. “It was a sad story.”

“I guess.”

“I don’t, either.”

“What?”

“Have anyone to play with.”

On the third night, the last night, the next day all the relatives will leave and Jake will sell the house, on the third night Jake comes down to the ocean. The boy is there again. Jake is about to call out to the boy when he stops himself, afraid, and draws closer. 

The boy stands in the ocean. The moon pools in the dips between waves. The boy reaches down and dips his finger in the moonlight. He turns, moves his hand like the flow of a condor’s wing, and to his finger the silver thread of moonlight clings, a sweet note from the throat of woman who doesn’t care that she doesn’t know how to sing, the image lingers in Jake’s eye, the boy brings his finger back to the water where he dips it beneath the surface, lifts it into the air, the water follows his hands in ribbons, a sapling fountain with the moonlight dancing woven all between. 

Water twists about the boy, holds him up, the boy’s laugh, there again. The boy rises up to the sky and the constellations converge about him, the sky folds inwards and down, like it was reaching a hand to match the boy’s, the two of them straining, spinning, each turn of their hands the first stroke in a painting, their desperate reaches on the verge of twinning, boy and sky becoming one.

But the boy merely tickles the sky and the stars shiver at his touch, he falls back down a thousand feet into the water where he stretches his arms to either side and turns round and round, as the boy churns the water Jake feels it churn inside him as well. 

For a moment all limitation holds suspended, unreal, Jake leans forward and now it is his turn to reach out a hand as the boy performs a miracle in the waves, it feels as though he is there, standing aside the boy, the water and the sky lapping at his heel, he moves his arm and the world wheels, but he’s not there, not really, he’s just watching, but what does it matter if he’s there or not if it feels like he is? 

And so Jake holds out his hand and he can see Vermont he can hold Samantha and and and

A wisp of green energy curls from his palm. A single blade of grass. It stretches up and at its tip it buds and flowers. A splash of water trickles up alongside it and plops down in rainbow droplets. Fire crinkles up the grass stalk and twines with the water in a looping spiral and dirt bubbles beneath the grass, little granules of rocks. The grass grows thicker, becomes a rose, the petals are tongues of fire, the stalk is an iridescent stream.

The rose grows in upon itself and then flares out into indistinct racing lines of light and shadow. The lines hide in each other’s shadows and curl about in playful darts. The waving lines bleed together in a tapestry and the tapestry spreads wings.

A seagull hops in his palm on one foot. It looks at him and tilts its head with curiosity and he tilts his as well just as curious. He brings the bird close to his face and it chirps and flutters. He lifts his hand up to the fading light and the bird raises away on whispered wings.

How Bad Are Adverbs, Really?

Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use adverbs. I have heard this advice from a hundred sources a hundred times. It seems to be the one thing that style guides and literary critics can all agree on. Adverbs bad. But how useful is this advice? Is there a way that, actually, adverbs good? 

An adverb often serves to add specificity to an action. They also can convey emotion, add punch to a sentence, heighten tension and explain setting. They are an all purpose grammar tool. So why the hate?

In my own experience, whenever someone has suggested that I remove an adverb from my writing it is because I am using that adverb as a crutch. What I mean by this is that I am using the adverb to convey the information by expressly telling the reader. In reality, I should be conveying this information through other means. More specific language and detailed descriptions can often serve to convey the same information as an adverb in a more artful way. 

Everyone knows the classic example of how the sentence “he sprinted” is better than the sentence, “he ran quickly.” Why use lot words when few words do trick? Sprinted is a better phrase than ran quickly. But there are more complex examples. 

“The sun shone brilliantly across the grasses gently swaying in the wind.” A fairly stock description of a field. The problem with the adverbs here is not that they are bad sentences, but that they are always used to convey this image. Adverbs are bread and butter of cliche descriptions. A better sentence might read, “The grass dipped and wove in the breeze, each kernel of wheat reflecting the morning sun.” By forcing myself to avoid adverbs, I had to invent a more original way to describe the scene. 

Adverbs are also exceedingly dangerous when they are used as dialogue tags. From personal experience I know that nothing I have written has ticked a creative writing teacher off more than, “shouted loudly.” Oftentimes, an adverb modifying a tag is simply a sign of ameature writing. Even if the phrase is fairly solid, such as “said softly” which is a personal favorite of mine, it still comes off as ameature. I’ve found that using adverbs in this way is best done sparingly; often it can have good effects, but that effect is negated by frequent use. 

But I also believe that adverbs can be useful, if used well. Sometimes adverbs fit well with a more flowery style of writing, writing that relishes long sentences and complex structure. Sometimes an adverb is just exactly what’s needed to describe something as well. To use an example of a sentence I wrote recently: “she sits down heavily in a chair.” I can’t find a perfect verb to encapsulate that sense of sitting down with an angry harumph, but “heavily” does the job pretty well, and it doesn’t get in the way. 

Adverbs are a danger. When I go back to edit my work, they are something I look for, because I know I have a penchant to rely on them. Replacing adverbs with stronger, more direct language is usually the right call. But the only rule in writing is that there are no rules. If you feel the call of the adverb, don’t just sprint for it. Run quickly.

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Trail’s End

The car skips and bounces down the road. Gravel kicks up in streaks of dust behind the wheels. I look out the window and lean my head against the glass. 

“Well?” Amy asks. She’s driving. I’m in the backseat, stretched out, my legs pressing against one window and my head against the other. I look at my toes. Each of the nails is bruised. The one on my big toe is cracked in two different places. I wiggle them. I’m sure they stink, but I can’t smell it anymore and Amy is nice enough not to complain. 

“Well?” Amy repeats. She glances at me through the rear-view mirror, smiling. Waiting. Wanting something from me. 

“Well what?” I ask. 

“How was it?”

“Good.”

She laughs. “That’s not all you’re going to say, is it?”

“It was hard, too.” I smile back. “Sorry, It’s just…” my voice trails off. 

“Well, what was your favorite state, at least.”

“New Hampshire.”

“How come?”

“Had the prettiest mountains.”

“Did it help?”

“Did what help?”

“The trip.”

I turn my head and watch the forest slide past outside the window. The road we’re on stretches nearly parallel to the trail. It’s odd, because in the last half hour we’ve travelled what took me three days to walk. It doesn’t feel like just travelling, it feels like the car is erasing the trail, eating it up, turning it into a green blur barely perceived through a window. 

“No,” I say. “It didn’t help.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Amy asks. Her face is a mask of sympathy, tinted dark by the shade of the mirror. 

“No,” I say. “Just thinking.”

“You can sleep if you want. We can talk later.”

“Okay. Yeah.”

I lean back and close my eyes but I don’t sleep. I think about this picture I saw of a man at the end of the Appalachian Trail. He’s on Mt. Katahdin, on his knees, and he’s gripping the summit marker with both hands, pressing his head against the wood. Sobbing. The picture doesn’t move but I can see his shoulders heaving.

I thought it would be like that when I got to the top, to the end. But it wasn’t. I don’t know.  I looked at the view, which was nice, but I had seen better, and then I walked down to the parking lot and waited for Amy to come get me, drive me home. I thought it would mean something. 

Home is back in Connecticut for us, which means the drive is nearly ten hours. We take a pit stop at a convenience store outside of Portland. It’s dark now. We’re the only car in the parking lot. Neon signs say proudly that the gas is only $2.95, the light from inside the store is almost painful to look at compared to the rich dark of the clouded sky. The car’s headlights sweep across the asphalt and Amy cuts the motor. 

I get out of the car and stretch. The lights of Portland turn the sky orange in the distance. Even if there weren’t clouds, there wouldn’t be any stars. 

“I’ll get gas,” Amy says. 

“I’m gonna piss,” I say. 

My boots don’t fit linoleum tiles. They’re so scuffed around the edges that they look almost fuzzy. What used to be grey and blue has turned almost black with caked mud. The tiles are sharp and edged. They have the usual crumbs and dust and scratches, the store owner in the corner is busy sweeping the residue under the counter. 

“Hey,” I say. “Got a bathroom?”

He points. 

The inside of the bathroom is covered with funny quotes about alcohol. I’ve had one beer too many, but I can’t tell if it was the eleventh, or the twelfth. Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer. I chuckle at a good one about Winston Churchill. 

I’m so used to pissing on trees that I nearly forget to flush. It’s funny. I thought I might change. I thought I was supposed to change. But I didn’t mean change as in, I forget to flush. I meant change, as in, I cried when I held the sign on Mt. Katahdin. 

At the counter I toss a bag of Cheez-Its to the store owner, who scans them and tosses them back and then I toss him some coins, a game of catch. He looks me up and down. 

“Hiker?” he asks. 

“What gave it away?”

“The beard,” he says. I scratch at it thoughtfully. I haven’t shaved in six months. 

“That’s true.”

“Let me guess,” the store owner says. “Baxter State Park?”

“For a little,” I say. “I was a through hiker.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

“My son was a through hiker.” He gives me the receipt. “See any bears?”

“A few,” I say. “When I was in the White Mountains, I saw one trying to reach for my bear bag. I hadn’t hung it in the trees properly and it was too close to one of the trunks, and this bear had climbed all the way up it and was reaching its paw for the bag. As I watched, the branch it was on broke. Real awkward thing, too. Paws flailing everywhere. It stood up and looked around like it was embarrassed, scratched its ear, and walked away as if nothing had happened.”

The store owner laughs. “I’ll tell my son.”

“I had a son, too,” I say. 

“How old is he?”

“Would have turned fifteen in a month.”

When I get back to the car, Amy is sitting in the driver’s seat. The lights are off, so the only thing illuminating her face is pink neon, her expression bathed and washed and bleached. I get into the back seat. She doesn’t start the car, we just look at each other through the rear view mirror. 

“Did you get gas?” I ask. 

“I want to know why,” Amy says. 

“Are you crying?” I ask. 

“You were gone for six months.”

I don’t say anything. 

“You were gone for six months and you just left me.”

“Can we talk about this when we get home?”

It’s a silent car ride back. 

We sleep in the same bed. It’s the first time I’ve slept next to someone since I began the hike. She sleeps facing away from me. Morning light already fills the room with grey fuzz. I look at my hand, eyes open. Every part of me is aware of my wife, the weight of her in the bed, the warmth of her in the room, the sound of her breath and the smell of what she washed her hair with. All of the sensations are too much, I can’t handle the proximity, the constant reminder of another consciousness unable to sleep because the same grief is in both our hearts, I don’t want to feel her emotions as well as mine, so I get out of bed and I go for a walk down the street, in the same jacket I wore while hiking, barefoot, the concrete leeches warmth from my soles. 

In the morning I have the same breakfast that I had on the trail. Oatmeal, brown sugar, powdered milk. I eat it at the kitchen counter, hunched over the food, too bleary eyed to focus on much of anything.

Amy sits down across from me, wearing pajamas, her hair erratic. 

“Where’d you go this morning?”

“Just for a walk.” I pick up my bowl of oatmeal and wash it in the sink. The flakes stick to the side of the bowl and it takes a couple passes with the sponge to clean it out. 

“I thought you’d have had enough walking.” She smiles, it’s a joke, but it really doesn’t feel like it. 

“Me too.”

“I want you to tell me about it. Tell me a story.”

The bowl is clean by now but I keep scrubbing at it. 

“You didn’t call,” Amy says. 

“I texted.”

“Once a week, to let me know you were safe, like we agreed.”

“Did you want me to call?”

“Of course.”

“You could have, you know. I would have answered.”

“Look at me,” she says. 

I put the bowl down. I look at her. She reaches out and takes my hands which hang limp at my sides and holds them between us. Her thumb plays over the dirt on the back of my hand — a half hour long shower couldn’t scrub it clean — plays over the ridge of tendons and muscle I didn’t used to have. 

“I missed you,” she says. “I needed you.”

“I needed to do something,” I say. 

“I know you did.”

“You said it was fine. I asked and I asked and I asked if it was alright for me to go and you said you would be fine.”

“I didn’t want to control you.”

“I just… I needed my life to change.”

“Haven’t our lives changed enough?” Her voice chokes mid-sentence. 

“I got up each morning and I sat on the bus to go to work and all around me, everybody was living their lives, moving, you know, and there I was, pretending nothing was different, moving along with them, pretending like nothing had happened, and I couldn’t do that.”

“And on the trail? Did you stop needing to pretend when you were on the trail?”

I look away. 

“Look at me,” she says. 

“I kept pretending,” I say. 

“And for us?” she says. “Are we going to keep pretending, too? That nothing is different, that you didn’t abandon me, that our son didn’t–”

“Stop.”

“That our son didn’t die?”

“We could keep pretending.”

“I don’t want to. I want to walk with you. I want to feel everything I need to feel, and then I want it to be done, just done, however long it takes for the grief to go away. I want you to be there with me. ”

“I need to call work,” I say. “To tell them I’m back. See if I still have a job.”

“Okay,” Amy says. She turns away from me. “Okay.” 

I reach out a hand to touch her shaking back but I don’t, my fingers hover and then I draw them away. 

At the top of Mt. Katahdin I stand in front of the sign that the hiker from the photo held. I turn from the sign, look out at the view. Clouds curl about themselves in little wisps. Slopes and rocks and trees and cliffs and ridges all around in a jumble. 

I try to wrap my head around just how large the trail is. How large it is and I walked the whole thing, all two thousand two hundred miles of it. I can’t do it. I can’t hold the image all together. I can grab hold to a scrap here, a fragment there, but it is like a cup that has shattered. The shards of ceramic lie scattered in my mind. I pick up a shard and the rain patters against the walls of my tent, yet I am warm inside, wrapped in a sleeping bag, my headlamp reflects off the pages of my book. I pick up a shard and Amy and I are eating lunch while watching tv, I steal a potato chip from her plate and she steals half my sandwich and I steal her glass of milk and she steals a kiss.  I pick up a shard and it is my son’s fifth birthday, I hold him up on my shoulders and run like a donkey around the yard while he smears his face with pink cake. Every time I pick up a shard I am forced to put down the one I was holding, no matter how many shards I grab I can never make the cup whole again, I can never contain the entirety of my son in the breadth of my imagination. 

So I don’t try.