The Queer Art of Not Staying Dead

This post contains major spoilers for the end of Gideon the Ninth and the whole of Harrow the Ninth, and minor spoilers for The Dawnhounds.

If I had a ten-cent coin for every New Zealand sci-fi/fantasy novel that killed off its sapphic main character only to bring her back to life through cool worldbuilding and thematically resonant means… well, I’d only have twenty cents, but it’s neat that it’s happened more than once.

We all know the trope—the cliché even—of the tragic queer character. “Bury Your Gays” is part of most people’s fandom lingo even if they’re not familiar with its broader media history. Whether due to censorship regulations, underlying homophobia on the writers’ part, or otherwise well-meaning creatives stumbling into familiar patterns, there’s a long, established literary history of killin’ off the non-heterosexuals. This makes every story that doesn’t do this refreshing, of course. But on a deeper level, it also makes room for stories that engage with this trope through genre fiction: drawing the reader’s eye to the familiar pattern playing out, and then ultimately rejecting it for maximum thematic satisfaction.

Jyn Yat-Hok is the protagonist of Sascha Stronach’s The Dawnhounds. She begins the novel having a rough night, and her situation doesn’t really improve. She exists in a system that dehumanises and disempowers her. Yes, the alchemical plants and fungus that have overtaken her city post-revolution are pretty freaky. To say nothing of the organic, biomechanical weapons the authorities now use, where poisonous vines and grubs with deadly neurotoxins are the disciplinary tools of choice! But all this can be navigated if you’re careful. It’s the human authorities making Yat’s life difficult: her bosses at the police department, and the masked priests who have the justice system in their pockets.

Yat is trying her best to be good, but the system just isn’t hearing it. She’s trying to get on the side of the law, but her superiors will never let her forget her past as a houseless “roof rat”, forced to steal or starve. She’s trying to be a decent citizen, but her superiors will never let her forget that her “delicate issues” set her apart from the acceptable norm.

Yat, you see, has been demoted to the gruelling night shift after being caught in a gay bar. Don’t worry, though—Yat’s bisexual, which means she could settle down with a man if she wanted to, which means her attraction to women doesn’t count and is just a deluded infraction she can be trained (or scared) out of. Yat will be let back in, but she’s on thin ice. She needs to keep her head down, follow protocol, repress herself, and everything will be juuuuust fine.

And then, our heroine gets shot. The bullet in her head is like the final nail in the coffin of her situation: the final assurance that she just can’t be allowed to be in this world. She’s demoted and degraded simply because she is who she is, and she’s killed simply because she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. This world will never be fair to her, will never give her a chance, not even to survive.

Or, rather… the humans that represent the power structure won’t. Lucky for Yat, there’s an older, more cosmic power that does give her a second chance. The god Monkey stitches her back together and sends her back to the land of the living, imbued with strange new powers and tasked with causing trouble. Dying, in a way, is when Yat’s life really turns around.

This ironic play on expectations—characters getting killed is usually when they leave the story—is fun anyway, but there’s something extra juicy about this happening when Yat is explicitly queer and The Dawnhounds’ setting explicitly homophobic. Yat is the last person anyone expects to survive, to thrive, or be powerful—she’s someone who the authorities are usually happy to treat as disposable. Yet here she is, rejecting both the social sensibilities of her world and the literary history of the reader’s.

In recent works, we’re seeing more and more of these cheeky, magical reconfigurations of queer tragedy. Julian dies right at the start of Aiden Thomas’ Cemetery Boys, but remains as a ghost to be the book’s secondary protagonist. T.J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door mostly takes place after its main character dies, as he gets a new lease on life in the realm of the dead. While not quite the same thing, and while not a supernatural story, David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing is narrated by a sort of Greek chorus of the ghosts of men who died during the AIDS crisis—otherwise silenced by the powers that be, they get to have a voice through this funky literary device. In the playful space of fiction, we can mess around with the usual “rules”.

And of course there’s Gideon the Ninth, which ends on the absolutely pants-shatteringly gutsy move of killing off its titular character. You get to spend some 500 pages in this girl’s head, falling in love with her, and then you get to watch her heroically sacrifice herself. It’s devastating, but it fits neatly into a pattern we’re familiar with: the lesbian dies for dramatic effect, splitting up a prospective couple, her life ending on a tragic crescendo that moves the story forward rather than her sticking around for a soft happy ending. Gideon gets a better shot than most, at least, since she gets to go out on her own badass terms and solidify herself as a noble, loyal character. Surely we should be happy with that?

Nope, says Tamsyn Muir, we should not be happy with that. The following book is a howl of grief disguised as a necromantic space opera. Harrow the Ninth is about Gideon’s absence, even if the main character won’t acknowledge it at first. It all builds together to solidify that Gideon is not disposable, that her death should not be taken for granted nor celebrated. It invites the reader to grieve for her… but then, those feelings validated, it also swings around and lets you have her back.

Few reading moments, for me, have been as rip-roaring satisfying as “seeing” Gideon again towards the end of Harrow the Ninth—or rather, realising that she’s been here the whole time. It doesn’t feel like a cheap switcheroo, since the novels have gone to such pains to make sure that death itself isn’t cheap even in this world were spirit and skeleton magic exists. You get both: the ache of loss and an acknowledgement that queer death matters in narratives, and a big middle finger to the concept that queer characters should have to die. The speculative elements set the stage for this dialogue to play out.

Gideon is a lesbian who dies, but she’s not Another Dead Lesbian. Muir rejects the trope by keeping her in the narrative after her heroic sacrifice. And Gideon gets to reject it as well, in the text, because having been kept in the narrative she’s had some time to think about all this, and has had time to get pissed off about the circumstances of her death. Damn it, she might have died voluntarily, but she’s going to live—for herself this time, knocking aside those fancy notions of noble self-sacrifice. It’s character development that can kind of only happen after a character has died. Rather than death being the end of Gideon’s arc, it’s one of the early steps!

As with Yat, this playful spin on the convention that a dead character = a no-longer-present character is fun on its own, but it gets an extra rebellious oomf because it also works as a metatextual critique of the trope of the dead queer (and in both their cases, specifically on the dead queer woman). In many ways, their story worlds are cruel and unfriendly places where, for various reasons, they find themselves without autonomy. But these authors deploy other, sneakier, underlying aspects of their worldbuilding to give that autonomy back, be it rebel gods or especially clever use of necromancy.

It also gives them a new sense of community: Yat falls in with a group of pirates who have been similarly brought back to life and imbued with the same funky powers. Lo and behold, a lot of them are also queer. Are the gods specifically picking LGBTQIA+ people to bring back to life and gift with cosmic power? Maybe it’s not that simple within the story world, but for us as readers it sends a powerful, meta message: you don’t deserve to get killed off. You deserve to be a hero. You deserve to be the most powerful being in the story, and to scare the shit out of the people who would have disempowered you.

Gideon… well, we’ll have to see how it all plays out when Nona the Ninth is released next month. There are certainly hints of a weird little found family of folks who have cheated death, or or otherwise re-jigged it to suit their own needs. When you establish your key cast as a bunch of genius necro-nerds, the narrative door is open for creative and bizarre contingency plans that destabilise our expectations of tragedy. Again, though, Muir pulls this off without making death feel cheap. The rules of her magic system are set and its limitations firmly established. They’re just… bendy. Our understanding of the fantasy logic makes any transgression of it, any mischievous tweaking of those existing rules, feel especially triumphant and rebellious.

Yes, Gideon needs to find a way back into her own body. Yes, the gang needs to figure out what exactly is going on with “Nona”. What can a reunion between Gideon and Harrow possibly look like, after everything they’ve been through, and what kind of resolution can we possibly hope for? These are questions we have space to ask because these characters, while in peril, have proven themselves very good at not dying when they’re killed.

Playing with death using speculative elements opens new, strange, wonderful narrative possibilities. In these contexts, it also works to put the queer reader at ease and lets them engage wholeheartedly, secure in the knowledge that this all won’t end in tears. Of the many things that sci-fi and fantasy (and blends of the two) can do, it’s offer up a playful rejection of reality and of the narrative patterns that become so entrenched we might take them for granted. And spooky skeletons and freaky fungi, of course.

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Filed under Archetypes and Genre, Fun with Isms

3 responses to “The Queer Art of Not Staying Dead

  1. Caitlin Stern

    I was furious at the end of Gideon the Ninth, but I loved the story, so I read Harrow the Ninth. Slightly less furious after.
    Going to have to check out Dawnhounds. Sounds intriguing!

    • It is a DEVASTATING ending – which is why I’m so amazed they went with it! Tor clearly had faith that even if they were sad and furious, readers would still come back for a sequel and get the payoff.

  2. Pingback: “We Do Bones”: August ’22 Roundup | The Afictionado

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