Hailing from New Zealand, Tamsyn Muir left her career as an English and ESL teacher to pursue writing (we are very glad for it). She is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop for writers, an intensive program for aspiring SFF writers based in the United States. Her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in the Locked Tomb series, exploded onto the literary scene in 2019 and was quickly declared to be one of the best books of the year by numerous publications, gaining praise from names such as V.E. Schwab, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. The sequel, Harrow the Ninth, was released in 2020.
Before her novel debut, Muir published numerous short stories, including Princess Florinda and the Forty-Flight Tower, The House that Made Sixteen Loops, The Magician's Apprentice and The Deepwater Bride, as well as The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex, which ties into her novels.
Tamsyn Muir is known for her exhilarating blend of genres, mixing horror and comedy, romance and mystery, politics and science-fantasy, all topped with a generous serving of horrid (read: delectable) little bone witches and swashbuckling swordswomen. Her prose turns from cosmic to personable in the blink of an eye with incredible confidence, and her characters leap off the page to live rent free in your mind forever, probably.
Gideon the Ninth won the 2020 Locus Award for Best First Novel and was also shortlisted for the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2020 World Fantasy Award and the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Her short story, The Deepwater Bride, was nominated for multiple awards.
Her novels have been met with critical acclaim and gained a voracious fanbase. NPR claimed that ‘Gideon the Ninth is too funny to be horror, too gooey to be science fiction, has too many spaceships and autodoors to be fantasy, and has far more bloody dismemberings than your average parlour romance.’
The Locked Tomb is an adult SFF series. The books centre around Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, two young women raised in each other’s pockets in the decrepit necromantic Ninth House, surrounded by ossifying death-cultist nuns and the reanimated dead for company. When the god-emperor of the nine houses sends out the call for new saints, Harrow plans to make the pilgrimage to the First House to discover the secrets of immortality. However, she cannot make it alone and must call on Gideon, her lifelong enemy, to act as her cavalier. Gideon has no interest in necromancy or aiding Harrow in her quest, but enmity like this is never so simple, and their world is not what it seems. While Gideon revolves around murder mystery, forgiveness and sacrifice, Harrow explores grief and psychological horror. Both contain a healthy dose of gothic horror, contemporary comedy, lesbian psychosexual obsession and bones. So many bones. Each book hits like a sledgehammer and lingers like a ghost. If you’re looking for a wild, intense ride, the Locked Tomb series is what you want to be picking up next.
The third book in the series, Nona the Ninth, is set to be released later this year, and Alecto the Ninth is scheduled to follow in 2023.
Tamsyn: Oh, heck! I have trouble enough with most self-definition anyway; this one’s a poser. I define myself as a ‘Kiwi’ author a lot but the trouble is that means a lot of quite woolly things that I would only expect other Kiwis to get. It’s to do with the sense of humour and ways of taking the piss, of how I approach the SFF genre. Trouble is that New Zealand is quite good at taking the piss out of itself (mostly) and SFF, although it is a genre that loves to laugh, has real problems laughing at itself. It feels as though it has been laughed at too much already by people it doesn’t like. I’m very much an author who loves the beauty and the ridiculousness, and wants them to sit side-by-side. I often think the contrast makes the beauty more beautiful and the ridiculousness more ridiculous – this is why I reckon horror and comedy are also such effective bedfellows – but it’s also why people who want one thing but not the other don’t get on well with my stuff. Which is fine, because sometimes you want a peanut butter sandwich or a jam sandwich and you don’t want both. I’m often both.
Tamsyn: That’s a lovely way of putting it. I feel like this ties in to my theory above about contrast – literary colour theory – and about how I feel that in the first instance, learning how to parody well teaches you how to write better. I wish we did a bit more genre mimicry in schools when we teach writing; when I was teaching writing in a secondary curriculum we only did the tiniest bit and I thought that was a shame.
I think that writing multiple genres certainly helps me stop characters from calcifying as they might in a single-genre book. The rules that would dictate who Harrowhark Nonagesimus is and how she functions change drastically when you put her in a horror book and when you put her in a comedy book. Some of these characters are basically trapped in the wrong genre and I like seeing them flail about. But I think that the rules of SFF are, in their own way, getting as rigid and uncompromising as people are finding the rules of romance genre – which I don’t like at all.
I do love mixing up the rat run. Genre is an obstacle course. I want my characters to have to climb the long rope as well as hold the egg on the spoon.
Tamsyn: I can’t quite believe I’m a rising literary star, so I won’t accept this. To be honest, I’m not doing anything very different from the place I cut my teeth in – fanfiction – where flipping roles is the name of the game, although writing women is sometimes a different story depending where you’re sitting. I was in a lot of early video-game fandoms which were at their heart role-playing games, so often you got this big juxtaposition of people who had played the game one way, like they’d made up their team of the male characters, and therefore got a massively different experience to me, who took as many women along as possible. I got so cross as a teenager seeing female characters laughed at or made the girlfriend or the butt of whatever grim joke, when in fact I’d beaten the boss with them, I’d kitted them out to basically kill God. Games are at their best when you’re finding little stories you’re telling, when the game is a generator for the drama you as the player find. I always got annoyed, as a teenager with not much ability to cope with being annoyed, that people were talking about their experience with the game as a universal when I’d done something totally different.
That said, loving the underdog and loving the female JRPG character of the nineties and early 2000s were basically the same thing. Yes, I loved Yuffie Kisaragi from Final Fantasy VII, yes I now understand that she does at one point mess up your entire inventory system, but when I was fourteen I was coping with all these fans writing out ludicrous 'here’s how I would rape and torture these female characters for the sin of messing up my inventory/not having a great end-game weapon option/questioning me'. I’ve taken that energy, I guess, to SFF. I am simply forcing you to sit down and watch how I play the game.
Tamsyn: It’s undeniable that the Locked Tomb books are going to include my personal relationship to faith: 'being a gay Catholic' is like the book’s logline. That said, the God of the Locked Tomb IS a man; he IS the Father and the Teacher; it’s an inherently masc role played by someone who has an uneasy relationship himself to playing a Biblical patriarch. John falls back on hierarchies and roles because they’re familiar even when he’s struggling not to. Even he identifies himself as the God who became man and the man who became God. But the divine in the Locked Tomb is essentially feminine on multiple axes – I think Nona will illuminate that a little bit more.
I mean, before this all sounds too theological I fundamentally believe one of the internal engines of the whole series is what if the magical girl . . . was a guy in his thirties with some very weird friends?
Tamsyn: There’s at least one big concrete secret that I hope to explore in Alecto. (There are hints about this in Gideon.) We definitely didn’t see all of Canaan House in the first book. And as for the mysterious force, it’s going to get less (or more . . . ) mysterious.
I also love the idea of a haunted house as a house possessed! I love it when a place becomes an antagonist. Silent Hill 4: The Room did this magnificently. I think that would be a great game to return to now that post-pandemic we all understand the deep horrors of being locked in your flat. There are still horrors in Canaan House – Canaan House is returned to in Harrow and in its own very weird and oblique way it does return in Nona – or at least, a prequel version of it. You get to see why the house is haunted.
Tamsyn: Oh, we see thalergy used all the time, but because it’s not Harrow’s speciality we don’t get as much of a POV on it. Even Harrow’s very nimble mind has to be led in Harrow the Ninth to realising that the entire danger of a bone ward impregnated with thanergy, or death juice, is that thanergy is easier to play with and in its own way less chaotic than life energy – easier to break by the very specific rules Harrow’s enemies are playing with in Harrow. Nona will not be much more of a help because Nona absolutely fundamentally does not care about thanergy or thalergy or ghost magic or really magic of any kind.
It would be lots of fun to write a necromancer POV who isn’t any of the current magical POVs I’ve done. We’re there too briefly with Ianthe, and Ianthe sucks too bad, to hear about much technical stuff from her POV. And Judith Deuteros, who is the POV in the short story As Yet Unsent, identifies as a soldier before she identifies as a necromancer. Harrow very much identifies as a necromancer but a specific kind of necromancer. I guess in another universe someone is wistfully being like 'I wonder what a POV from a Ninth House necro would be like . . . I wonder if they ever mention bones . . . '
Tamsyn: Love and pity definitely aren’t the same thing. For Gideon and Harrow, pity is almost closer to grace – an ability to look at someone and recognise their weakness and not feel contempt despite how much they’ve been hurt. Gideon being able to recognise Harrow’s weakness is, ultimately, a vehicle for forgiveness – and although love and forgiveness aren’t necessarily the same thing either, Gideon’s frankly divine ability to forgive is a huge core of the novel. Gideon’s love is very human, very different, extremely messed-up, super co-dependent . . . and yet is also a vehicle for Gideon and Harrow saving each other. Forgiveness is almost the electrical current being able to transmit through love. I guess love here is like a toaster cable.
On a Catholic note, ye olde famous pool scene is very much Gideon being able to achieve a state of grace.
Tamsyn: Oh, I like all of this. A*. In my mind, I’d argue that Gideon doesn’t achieve classical tragedy status because there’s no sense that the ending of the book is that her destruction was foretold and foreknown. She changes into the person who does what she does at the end of the book: Harrow even articulates specifically in Harrow that Gideon’s end wasn’t inevitable, it wasn’t the destiny for who she fundamentally was. Gideon in her opening chapter would not have done what Gideon in the final chapter does, which prevents her from being a tragic hero in the Aristotelian model. (Modern tragedy is, of course, playing by different rules.) The Locked Tomb is very much discussing different reasons people sacrifice themselves and each other – ways in which we justify it, ways in which we don’t. Harrow’s tragic struggle is the titanic fight with herself – a life devoted to duty that, at last, says ‘No’; and how that ‘No’ comes much too late for her to do anything and for her to start pushing back upstream – except that Harrow is fundamentally hubristic, she is the living embodiment of 'rip to them but I’m different'. I think it’s right to call Harrow more of a deconstruction, because all the ends Harrow is inevitably making her way towards and all the lessons she is being gently taught actually end in her still saying No. Harrow’s being tempted – first by her upbringing, second by her psychopomps and guides. What will be the third temptation? (Imagine me winking as hard as anyone has ever winked.) (You actually won’t know until Alecto, really.)
In my mind the figure that cleaves the most towards the tragic is the Emperor, John, who is more or less given all the traits of a specific Greek tragic hero in the books – although one has to question whether or not John is actually making himself into this guy specifically; he knows the reference too. Is it a reference if the character is also self-aware of the reference??
Tamsyn: It’s very difficult. There are people who talk about Harrow in terms that are fundamentally thoughtless and unsympathetic to mental illness, and the tragic thing is that I know a lot of people who discuss it would probably rather eat their feet than say something hurtful, but because Harrow doesn’t flag itself up as a story about the mentally ill they have no idea what they’re doing. They almost need those flags to remind themselves to be kind. There are other people who have dealt with that particular brand of mental illness and one or two of them have reached out to me and gone ‘This is the first time I’ve seen this, I understood it immediately,’ and it’s wonderful, it will carry me through to the rest of my life. I didn’t intend Harrow to be a compliance test or a gotcha, it’s just interesting to me how some people talk about the book in terms that make me feel tired. But I knew that going in! When I wrote about this topic I had to write a very long letter to my editor coming out of that particular closet, and he and my publisher were wonderful about it but I knew it would happen. I just wishing anticipating it would take away the sting.
The way I personally stay true to the story I started down on is to give myself permission to not teach anyone anything. I’m not writing a manual. I’m not delivering bromides. I know that a lot of people do take enormous pleasure and relief in lines or phrases or ideas from stories that ring true to their own lives, but it’s important for me that I tell a story and that I’m not writing Chicken Soup for the Necromantic Soul. It is getting harder and harder again, especially for authors from marginalised places or backgrounds, to write works where the takeaway isn’t 'this is to succour all my marginalised people'. For anyone on the female-identified axis this is especially hard because it seems to me that most books by anyone female-adjacent have an expectation that they will comfort the uncomfortable and discomfit the comfortable etc., whereas a guy can just tell an adventure story and be done with it. This ties in with an idea that I think nowadays that good art is moral and bad art is immoral: i.e. if a story is bad it actually has to be because the lessons are bad, and if a story is good it must somehow be beautiful on the moral scale. We go looking for why the art we love is moral even if the art we love is a donut. I think this is the pressure of capitalism on time – that everything has to double or triple up in benefit compared to the time we take on it: if we’re prepared to waste eight hours on a book we had better be able to tot up at the end how that book was also feeding us in some way. That’s brand time we just used.
I am writing for my younger self and it would be disgusting of me to try to teach her anything.
Tamsyn: It is an honour to get to be interviewed – that anyone wants to ask me anything. It’s an even greater honour that anyone reads me, or uses me as a springboard to get back into reading – like, just put that on my tombstone already, that makes up for a hell of a lot else I commit. I hope Nona doesn’t undo any of this work. It’s not fair – nothing can take away from me the joy of having been told I did good just the once, but investing in an unfinished series can kind of bleed grief backwards. The stakes are so much higher for you.
Tamsyn: In every single way.
Thanks for the wonderful questions.
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