World Building

A Whole New World (or Worlds!) My Love for Gideon the Ninth and Its Worldbuilding by Catherine Peace

Thanks to ye olde pandemic, I’ve actually been reading a lot more than I have been previously. I kind of devour books the way Thanos devours planets (Marvel comics geeks, what up?), so I’ve been experiencing a lot of new stories, new characters, and best of all, new worlds.

I learned recently that a paracosym is the world that writers inhabit, and some paracosyms stand out a lot more than others because of their worldbuilding. It’s amazing the difference that’s made when a writer really digs into that paracosym and plays into what makes their world unique.

Recently, I read Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (I’m in the middle of the sequel right now) and I have to say that this book has blown me away on a number of levels. As an avid fantasy reader and a lover of dark fantasy especially, this book, and its intense sequel, hits a number of high notes for me.

The World(s)

Gideon the Ninth lays the foundation for the rest of the series in a way that avoids boring infodumps and As you know, Bobs. The reader is given just enough information to infer things about the world Gideon inhabits. We learn early on that Gideon is trying to escape from the Ninth House, which is its own planet, and get to the Second House where she can train to be a cohort, a soldier in the Emperor’s army. It’s her way out of this wretched place and away from the equally-wretched Harrowhark, who has tormented her since day one. I like to think of these kinds of openings as vignettes that blur out what’s unimportant and then open up to reveal the world at large. It isn’t long before Gideon and Harrow are on a ship headed to the First House, the house of the Emperor Undying (which is a WHOLE OTHER THING that I’ll cover below.) The First House is a different planet, one that’s covered almost entirely by water save for Canaan House, where the majority of the book takes place.

Nine Houses = nine planets in the solar system, each with its own specific role within the galactic empire that we learn more about.  Oh, and there are necromancers. That’s a big, big part of it….

 The Characters

In fact, Harrow’s a necromancer! Characters can (and really should) embody parts of the worldbuilding, whether they lean into it like Harrowhawk or try everything in their power to run away from it like Gideon. Harrowhark is an incredible necromancer, especially for her age, and she knows it. Because she and Gideon have been at odds their entire lives, they continue to be at odds even during a time that they need to act as a cohesive unit. We’re introduced to other necromancers, called adepts, and their bodyguards, called cavaliers, and their relationships help to prove just how fractured Gideon and Harrow really are. The adept/cavalier relationship is the crux of the trial that they’ve all gathered to complete.

Also, Gideon is the least likely and probably worst cavalier in the universe. She takes on the role of the straight character or the foil to the rest of the cast because (gasp!) she never trained as a cavalier. So things she doesn’t know and has to learn are things we learn through her. If we had a different point of view character (like Harrowhawk), who already knows and understands the world and the role of a cavalier, then we wouldn’t have nearly as much fun.

The Trials

Yes, what are these trials you keep alluding to, Catherine? Well, readers, the trial is something the adepts must complete in order to achieve the goal of Lyctorhood. A lyctor is an immortal and borderline-omnipotent servant to the undying Emperor God person. Thing. (In Harrow the Ninth, it’s revealed that God’s name is John and he makes really awful jokes.) Becoming a lyctor is the end goal for these necromancers.

To do so, they need to uncover and understand lyctoral formulas, which were developed by the very first lyctors to serve the Emperor. The purpose of the formulas, and of the lyctors themselves, is kept somewhat vague so that we, like the necromancers, are more concerned with the how? rather than the more important question, Why?

And as necromancers are picked off one by one, it’s a question that takes on even greater importance even though it’s relegated even more to the background. What I absolutely love about this whole ordeal is that it’s just really, really cool. This whole book is really, really cool. The trials are clever and meticulously designed, and they force the adepts and their cavaliers into situations where they work together just as much as they work apart. It’s a great way to draw out the relationships, to show the strain each pair is under, and best of all, to showcase what necromantic ability is really about in this world, because it’s a lot more than just raising skeletons.

I promise I’m not trying to sell this series to you (I do love it, though) but it’s SUCH a great example of how worldbuilding truly influences every part of a story. Plot, setting, characters, challenges—they’re all reflections of their worlds, and creating a strong and dynamic world will help your story stand out. I know I’ll be thinking of Gideon and Harrow and this crazy necromantic goth madhouse for a long time to come.


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"Don't annoy the writer. They may put you in a book and kill you." Anonymous --- In my heart of hearts, I love writing fantasy, but HG Wells stole my ...