Sometimes fiction works like a Rorschach test - you look at the ink blot and what you "see" reveals what's on your mind. If GIDEON THE NINTH is my Rorschach test, it seems to reveal an intense dislike of teenagers...? (I kid, I kid...)
The two principal characters of the novel are teenage girls - one a fighter, the other a necromancer who bosses her around. They go to a space castle, people start dying and The Last Person You'd Ever Suspect is the killer.
Despite living in a "dark" fantasy setting that just screams "Goth", these two protagonists behave very much like real teens at their most annoying: callous, shallow, self-centered, emotionally immature, occasionally psychopathic, obsessed with superficial appearance and "attitude", snarky, sexually frustrated, shortsighted... and sometimes quite stupid.
This novel was on the reading list for the SF/Fantasy reading circle I'm in. Those in the reading circle who had enjoyed GIDEON THE NINTH explained to me what I didn't get: The protagonists were written that way on purpose.
I guess that's true and original and subtly clever, perhaps even a satire pointed at YA fantasy itself. But... those are still a pair of annoying, snarky teenagers! Truth is, I can't stand their company.
Then there's the other "big thing" the reading circle explained to me: The setting.
Basically, the novel can be read as modern Fantasy from the viewpoint of the "bad guys" - who deal with abuse, murder, black magic, plotting and mutual hatred as a matter of daily business. (The phrase "the banality of evil" springs to mind.)
If that is Life On the Dark Side, then its darkest secret is how drab and boring it really is. Maybe it's parody. I have NO idea.
GIDEON THE NINTH has been hyped up as "Lesbian necromancers in space." Should've been "Frustrated High School Mean Girls in Gothland." If you like that sort of thing, good for you. And I mean that from the very bottom of my heart.
FOOTNOTE: After this review was written (it originally appeared on my Instagram feed), GIDEON THE NINTH was nominated for a Hugo Award.
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Sunday, August 02, 2020
Sunday, August 2, 2020, 12:00 AM PDT to
Monday, August 3, 2020, 11:59 PM PDT
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Saturday, August 01, 2020
1. First it is awarded to someone who has publicly denounced a writer as morally reprehensible, in the loudest, most uncompromising manner.
(Demanding that the works of the accused should be burned in public certainly qualifies. Calling the accused a "fascist" is taken as read, but you may have to try harder than that -- the competition can get fierce.)
2. Said winner is then denounced in turn, for some moral failing (small or large doesn't matter - you must have no sense of proportion)...
3. The award is then taken away and passed on to the most chest-thumpingly self-righteous denouncer of the previous winner...
4. ...and then that winner is "found out" and denounced (for something or other)... the award is passed on to the best of the latest denouncers... and so on.
In the end, everyone gets the award because nobody's pure enough to keep it. (Hence the words "Certified Righteous (for now).")
(Even I might get the award eventually...)
I had heard many good things about this novel - Stephen King has praised it - and I had seen the movie adaptations before I finally read it. (Haven't seen the Netflix series, though.)
And I think it's a remarkable piece of fiction - a successful fusion of psychological horror and the "haunted house" story.
The novel centers around the character Eleanor, who starts out with a clear hint of mental problems... and grows increasingly unhinged as she stays in the haunted Hill House. Somehow Hill House comes to haunt Eleanor, until she loses her mind. How this happens is never really explained, but it works perfectly as an uncanny tale.
One detail struck me: Even for a novel written in the late 1950s, all the characters have way too good manners. No one swears, whatever happens - and they're Americans! (I've grown so used to Americans cursing all the "effing" time...)
A recurring theme in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is parental issues. Eleanor seems to have been psychologically damaged by having to take care of her sick mother. Hill House was designed by a terrifying, creepy father figure. One character laments that he "never had a mother." I leave it to you to figure out how the parental issues are woven into the haunted house itself...
Another striking subtext - not a value judgment, just an observation - is how "gay" the principal characters are. Not one of the male characters seem the least bit sexually interested in women, but the female ones flirt with each other repeatedly and become infatuated with each other.
(I'm not sure how important this subtext is to the story. In any case I assume it was too sensitive for 1950s audiences and had to be "masked" somewhat.)
As for the ghosts, the reader never gets to see them. Rather it is the house itself that is evil.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is both a psychological thriller about a disturbed, lonely person and a weird, modern ghost story. It will make a lasting impression on you. Highly recommended.
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