I know I’m in the minority with my not very positive opinion about Gideon the Ninth and Tamsyn Muir’s writing style and if it had just been me, Harrow the Ninth would have existed happily without me ever picking it up. However! My fellow Hugo award nominators have spoken and as I am quite fond of them and trust their opinion, I did pick it up. And now, although it was not an easy read at all, I am kind of happy with the fact that I did. I am now pretty excited for next book, even. Huge thanks to the Tor.com Gideon the Ninth re-read which caught me up on everything I had forgotten in the most hilarious way.
No spoilers for Harrow but MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GIDEON THE NINTH BELOW!!!
HARROW THE NINTH
by Tamsyn Muir
Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Series: The Locked Tomb #2
My rating: 7.25/10
Opening line: Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving no distraction from the great rocking thump—thump—thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull. There was nothing to see—the shutters were down—but you could feel the terrible vibration, hear the groan of chitin on metal, the cataclysmic rending of steel by fungous claw.
She answered the Emperor’s call.
She arrived with her arts, her wits, and her only friend.
In victory, her world has turned to ash.
After rocking the cosmos with her deathly debut, Tamsyn Muir continues the story of the penumbral Ninth House in Harrow the Ninth, a mind-twisting puzzle box of mystery, murder, magic, and mayhem. Nothing is as it seems in the halls of the Emperor, and the fate of the galaxy rests on one woman’s shoulders.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House, has been drafted by her Emperor to fight an unwinnable war. Side-by-side with a detested rival, Harrow must perfect her skills and become an angel of undeath — but her health is failing, her sword makes her nauseous, and even her mind is threatening to betray her.
Sealed in the gothic gloom of the Emperor’s Mithraeum with three unfriendly teachers, hunted by the mad ghost of a murdered planet, Harrow must confront two unwelcome questions: is somebody trying to kill her? And if they succeeded, would the universe be better off?
Harrowhark Nonageismus is a Lyctor now. Well, a baby Lyctor who still has a lot to learn. She and Ianthe Tridentarius accompany the Emperor to the Mithraeum where they shall be initiated into Lyctorhood, learn what that’s all about, and also meet their teachers Mercymorn and Augustine, veteran Lyctors with a history. The first thing that will strike anyone picking up this book as that it’s narrated in second person, the second thing is a suspicious absence of Gideon’s name. Seriously, Gideon sacrificed herself to save Harrow and also helped her turn into a Lyctor in the first place but the narration seems to have forgotten that ever happened…
Harrow the Ninth has a huge advantage compared to its predecessor in that it gets its hooks into you right away. From the beginning, you know something is very wrong, you just don’t know why. The more you read, the more you realize that Harrow’s mind may not be in the healthiest of states, that her memories might not be trustworthy, that the story is told in second person and you don’t know who‘s telling it. But whoever they may be, this narrator could also have an agenda of their own and we have no way of knowing whether what they tell us is true…
Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that, apparently, the Emperor is about to be assassinated, given how some chapter titles have the helpful title “x months before the Emperor’s murder”. And thirdly, Harrow left herself some letters, each to be opened only under very specific circumstances (some of which are delightfully weird, others are plain impossible) and, trust me, you want to find out what’s in those letters! Plus, there are flashback chapters which take us back to the events at Canaan House, except… let’s just say they’re not how we remember. So you see, lots of riddles to solve, mysteries to unravel, and clues to discover.
But much like its predecessor, this book takes a long time to get going. Or rather, it spends too much time on repeating things that may not tbe all that important, and drags out the revelations too long. When three quarters of your book leave you pretty much clueless as to how any of the things happpening are possible or how other things can make sense, or whether what you’re reading is even the truth, that can get frustrating. While I was reading the book, I wasn’t ever really bored, but now that I’ve finished it, I absolutely believe that it would have worked just as well if it had been 150 pages shorter.
But since Harrow had a much smaller cast than Gideon and actually gave them, you know, a personality, I didn’t struggle as much this time around. I like being left in the dark, as long as I’m also being given clues that could make me figure out what it all means. Or as long as there are characters I enjoy following and whose relationships I’m invested in.
Tamsyn Muir is really not that good describing settings or training montages – or maybe she just doesn’t want to. She chooses obscure language over pragmatic words to tell her story. I swear, if had had to read the word “nacreous” one more time, I would have exploded. THINK OF A DIFFERENT WAY TO DESCRIBE PEOPLE’S CLOTHING! And for fucks sake, when you have the urge to say “affrighted” just go with “afraid” or “frightened” – it’s much less pretentious and actually fits into the rest of the narrative.
Given that we don’t get much information about the actual surroundings people are in, I didn’t give that much of a crap about how nacreous the clothes people were wearing when they got affrighted, anyway. We’re told they’re on a spaceship and a space station, but other than the fact that some doors are automatic, there are electric lights, and there’s something called plex (like plexi glass), we really don’t know what anything looks like. Okay, fine, not every book needs to have an immersive setting. I’m much more of a character reader anyway and if you say “space ship” I’ll just make something up in my mind.
Now the characters were actually much, much better than in Gideon, mostly because there aren’t 20 personality-less ones of them but rather only a small group of people who each get to be distinct. I can’t say I liked any of them as people but at least they were all interesting. And I developed a strange fondness for some of them. Like I enjoyed reading about them but I would stay far away from them in real life. Whether it’s Ianthe, Harrow’s fellow baby Lyctor who goes through training with her, or their mentors Augustine and Mercymorn, both less than thrilled at their job of teaching the new ones the ropes. Or the Emperor himself, who appears strangely passive, sometimes like a confused old man, sometimes like a wise father-figure, sometimes like a helpless idiot… Like I say, not exactly likable but definitely interesting! And of course Harrow, our dear befuddled heroine who throws up when she touches her sword, who remembers things all wrong, who struggles to fully become a Lyctor and also has to try and survive someone trying to kill her… She grew on me. I find her and the entire Ninth House as weird as ever and I don’t think that part of the world building makes much sense, but I was definitely rooting for Harrow.
What kept me reading (and wanting to pick up the book again every day) was the mystery. Or I should rather say, mysteries, plural. First of all, my most pressing question: What the hell happened with Gideon, is she living inside Harrow somehow, is she really dead dead, can they communicate, and what about her mysterious birth/past, I want to know all the things?!? Secodly, the flashback chapters we read about the events that transpired in Gideon the Ninth are very different from what actually happened, mostly in that Harrow remembers going to Canaan House not with Gideon as her cavalier but with Ortus. Yes, the Ortus who died at the very beginning of Gideon the Ninth. So either the entire first book in this series is a lie or Harrow’s brain is seriously fried. But either way, I wanted to find out what was going on and how things could possibly fit together. Tangentially, I also wondered what the hell Lyctors do all day, and apparently, one part of that is “make soup”. 🙂 Tamsyn Muir had her claws in me but she also took on the great responsibility of delivering a satisfying ending/twist/resolution to the very myserious goings-on in this book. The build-up piled up more and more so the ending really needed to be mind-blowing!
Now about those twists and revelations and solutions. There were several super cool moments in this book, some involving intriguing uses of necromancy, others to do with epic battles, but the coolest were definitely the many (!) revelations at the end. As slow as the first three quarters of the book are, everything happens at once in that last quarter. I had to re-read a lot of lines to see whether I was still following because not only are huge things revealed, life-changing, world-shattering things, but of course they are revealed in such a way as to be maximally confusing and impossible to understand immediately. But self-congratulatory use of fancy vocabulary aside, the gist of it was pretty damn awesome! I honestly didn’t think Muir could make up for the complete and utter confusion she created but a lot of things fall into place and just… make sense!
Mind you, the very ending makes sure you’re out of your depth again. It’s not only a big cliffhanger that leaves you hanging pretty much mid-scene, it also adds a new mystery to the story that has spawned people on the internet coming up with crazy theories. Yes, I am guilty of staying up way too late to read up on some of those theories and I am invested! The thing is, reading this book felt like work as much as it was fun, but it did offer lots of clever twists and turns, it had characters that I suddenly could root and care for or at least characters I could love to hate. It made me feel things and guess things (my guesses were all way off, btw) and got me screaming “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON” every other chapter. If Muir’s writing style were different, this owuld have been a five-star-read!
As deliberate as it may be, I just don’t jibe with her showy verbose prose. To me it always felt like the author is just trying to show off her skills using a thesaurus, but the fancy words she used didn’t build any atmosphere, they actually clashed with much of the rest of the prose, and they also didn’t fit a particular character’s style of talking. So keep your “affrighteds” and your “necrous” and just tell me what happens next, please. I’m serious, I want to know. Alecto the Ninth is on my wishlist now and if you’ve read my review of Gideon the Ninth, you know that that’s a huge accomplishment for this book.
MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Damn confusing but also very good!