Reposting to include Marion’s new review.
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Last year’s Gideon the Ninth was a delightfully over-the-top space fantasy that ended with a gut punch that had readers shouting “Damn you, Tamsyn Muir!” and clamoring for the sequel. The sequel, Harrow the Ninth (2020) is here, and I enjoyed it a lot, though there are a few things you’ll want to know going in.
One is that there is a lot going on, much of it cryptic, some of which ties back into details from the first book that might be hazy by now. I would recommend rereading Gideon the Ninth first, or at least keeping it close at hand, so you can refer back to it if you have questions or if something rings a bell. The other is that large portions of the book are written in second person. I thought this was going to be more distracting than it actually was. After a while, I think my brain just started glossing over the “you”s; I don’t really stop to process every “I” in a first-person book or “she” in a third-person one, and the same thing happened here.
Harrow the Ninth begins with Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, facing probable death at the hands (or claws) of a horde of terrible insectoid creatures, then moves back nine months in time to find her in a hospital bed. It’s not long since the bloodbath at Canaan House; not long since Harrow found out the true, terrible price of becoming a Lyctor; not long since the Emperor swooped in and rescued Harrow and the other surviving Lyctor he found at the scene. She has a sword with her; every time she tries to touch it, she becomes violently ill, but she also can’t bear to be parted from it. She has memories of what happened at Canaan House, but they’re … wrong.
The famous blurb for Gideon mentions a haunted palace; in Harrow, the haunted palace is Harrow’s mind. Sure, she’s on an ancient space station with skeletons for décor and dark secrets in its history, but what’s going on in Harrow’s head is even more riveting. It’s heartbreaking to see the way grief, and her inability to process that grief, have broken her down. At the same time, trying to figure out what’s going on is a fascinating puzzle. Muir hides clues everywhere: in lectures about necromancy, in the reminiscences of the older Lyctors, in Harrow’s strangely twisted memories. Meanwhile, someone wants to kill the Emperor, someone wants to kill Harrow, and the whole station is threatened by the revenant of a destroyed planet and its chitinous minions.
There is so much to reveal that the book’s climax does start to feel its length, especially since much of this portion is spent watching other characters do things. I felt wrung out by the end, and then smacked right into the brick wall of Book-Twoness: the ending opens up a whole new set of questions and mysteries, and I am once again shouting, “Damn you, Tamsyn Muir!” Waiting for Alecto the Ninth will be excruciating.
Also tossed into this soup (soup is important to the story, by the way) are the gory body-horror necromantic magic created in book one and the anachronistic intertextual jokes: sometimes these far-future characters will break into references to Reddit or Evanescence, and somehow it works. We also get to see more of some characters who died in Gideon before we could explore their hidden depths.
Harrow the Ninth pretty much ate me alive for three days — and I’m severely tempted to start all over right now and reread both books in light of everything I’ve just learned. I know I will before I read Alecto. I have no idea how Muir is going to resolve all this, but I’m sure it will be satisfying, cathartic, and sarcastic.
Harrow the Ninth, the sequel to the Nebula and Hugo Award-nominated fantasy Gideon the Ninth, is incredibly ambitious, decidedly wordy, and highly confusing for about three-quarters of the book, at which point Tamsyn Muir (finally!) begins to gradually pull back the curtains.
Harrowhark, the heir of the declining Ninth House, a talented necromancer, and Gideon’s frenemy, has left the planet of Canaan House in the company of the Emperor (aka “God”) and his few remaining elite necromancer warriors called Lyctors, including Ianthe from Gideon the Ninth. As they travel toward an impossible-to-win war with a Resurrection Beast and its hordes of giant insectoid soldiers called Heralds, Harrow navigates a complex web of conspiracies and not knowing for certain who is on her side and who wants her dead.
On top of that, Harrow is struggling with a slower-than-usual process of attaining her full powers as a Lyctor, along with a mental illness that seems to be warping her view of reality. The first clue that all is not as it seems: As Harrow recalls the events at Canaan House, she remembers her cavalier as being not Gideon, but her original Ninth House cavalier Ortus … who reportedly had died in a spaceship bombing many months ago. In what may not be entirely a coincidence, one of the Lyctors who makes a regular play at assassinating Harrow — though it’s possible he’s just trying to put her out of her misery — is also named Ortus.
Most of Harrow the Ninth alternates chapters between Harrow’s travels and interactions with the God-Emperor and other Lyctors, which are told in second person POV (for what is actually a very good reason, made clear much later in the book), and a peculiar retelling, told in third person, of Harrow’s experiences at Canaan House, … peculiar because, as Kelly and Bill mention, these past events play out so differently in this retelling. What is reality? (And, just to make matters more interesting, there are several chapters told in first person POV at the end.)
It’s been about five months since I read Gideon the Ninth, and if I had known when I started Harrow what I know now, I would’ve stolen Gideon back from one of my kids and at least reread the last 50 or so pages and refamiliarized myself with the characters, including the ones I thought were dead and gone (see above re: altered retelling of events at Canaan House).
Harrow the Ninth is both fascinating and frustrating, and it often made my brain hurt. Most of it was a difficult and opaque read because Muir is deliberately hiding the ball on so much from the reader for so long, and I’m a reader who thrives on understanding the overall context and scheme of a novel. Some mystery is good, but I felt that the confusing section (which is about the first 350 pages) should have been trimmed down by about a hundred pages.
On the positive side, Muir is unquestionably a talented author with a gift for words, and her prose was often a joy to read even when it wasn’t at all clear what was going on.
Then everything changed, forever. Harrowhark fell in love.
“Falling” was not the right term, precisely. It was a long process. She more correctly climbed down into love, picked its locks, opened its gates, and breached its inner chamber.
I also still love the interplay between fantasy and SF in these books, where necromantic magic takes places in a rather decrepit science fictional setting. The last 150 pages were excellent and truly enjoyable: they’re action-packed and, more importantly, some of the key questions raised in this series are finally answered (though, fair warning, Muir replaces those with several new questions). And clearly both of these first two LOCKED TOMB books would benefit from a reread. Time permitting, I’ll do that before I tackle the upcoming third book, Alecto the Ninth.
If you loved Gideon the Ninth I’d definitely recommend Harrow the Ninth, despite its challenges; if you weren’t a big fan of the first book, I’d probably give this one a pass.
First things first: You will want to read Gideon the Ninth, or at least the last fifty-ish pages, before starting Harrow the Ninth. My initial plan was to re-read the last few chapters, which immediately turned into a complete re-read of the entire novel, a choice which worked beautifully in my favor, because there is a lot in Harrow the Ninth which will not really work or make sense unless you understand why Harrow’s remembrance of the Emperor Undying’s letter summoning her to Canaan House, her arrival at said House, and her experiences during various ensuing events feel like double-exposed photographs. Tamsyn Muir is playing very tricky, very deliberate games here, employing a supremely unreliable narrator who is either quite mad or quite sane (or both), time-skips from “the night before the Emperor’s murder” to “nine months before the Emperor’s murder” and elsewhen, a deepening of the readers’ and Harrow’s understanding of the larger galaxy outside the Ninth House, and a new characters who had have thousands of years to love, hate, and try to understand one another.
The level of craft and skill that went into Harrow the Ninth boggles my mind; every word choice is deliberate — the inclusion of a single “me” late in the book felt like a static shock to my brain — and the novel’s overall construction is designed to keep the reader as off-balance and confused as Harrow is during all of this, right up until the moment when Muir pulls back the curtain and reveals that she’s not just the good witch guiding you down the yellow brick road, she’s also the wizard pulling strings and levers with expert precision. I like Tim’s assessment in his review of Gideon the Ninth that it feels like a book “written for an audience of other writers,” because I honestly haven’t been able to stop shaking my head at how perfectly each piece of this novel fits together. There are good reasons why everything happens in the exact moment and manner in which it takes place, and at the same time, layered on top of that Swiss-clock precision, Harrow the Ninth is tremendously fun. (Any novel which has references to Evanescence, Miette the Cat, Edgar Allen Poe, and Star Trek, among countless others, is a novel which is going to delight me.) And the fight scenes are kinetic without becoming confusing, whether it’s necromancers throwing skeleton constructs at one another or sword-masters throwing everything they have into a single thrust.
Moreover, the character work is wonderful, as Muir takes the opportunity to re-introduce readers to people we think we already know from Gideon the Ninth, and bring to light entirely new angles and opportunities for them to shine. Harrow herself is delightfully disagreeable, of course, but if Hermione Granger is “brightest witch of her age,” Harrowhark Nonagesimus is the darkest necromancer of hers, and the untapped depths of her power are more than a little terrifying to behold. Ianthe Tridentarius, newly become Ianthe the First, is as two-faced and untrustworthy as ever, and yet as Harrow spends time aboard the Emperor’s space station, her motivations become a little easier to understand. The Emperor and his few remaining Lyctors — the Saint of Joy, the Saint of Patience, and the Saint of Duty — are playing their own complex games with one another, even as they all train Harrow and Ianthe to join in the fight against an ancient enemy and, in the shadows, lurks something even more terrifying.
The LOCKED TOMB series is, obviously, one of my favorite things to read in a long while. Muir’s perfect balance of dread, suspense, fun, craft, dialogue, and character is a joy to behold, and the ending left me with questions snagged like fishhooks in my brain. As excited as I was to jump from Gideon the Ninth to Harrow the Ninth, I am even more excited for the next installment, Alecto the Ninth. I will probably re-read both before that’s published, and then again when I have the entire trilogy in my hands.
I might just wait a while before I sit down to have a bowl of soup again, though. Eek.
I noted in my brief review of Gideon the Ninth that I was a clear outlier in terms of response to that book, and my guess is the same will be true of the sequel, Harrow the Ninth. So that’s something to keep in mind as you read this review, which will be short as I don’t like to belabor points in a negative review.
Harrow the Ninth picks up shortly after its predecessor, with Harrow an “incomplete” Lyctor who has joined the few other Lyctors (including Ianthe) and “God” (the emperor) to continue her training in preparation for a battle against planet-eating Resurrection Beasts. Thanks to her incomplete nature, Harrow — and her companions — have good reason to doubt her sanity, to the point of her not knowing if what she sees is really there or if what she just experienced really happened. Another story thread proceeds alongside this one, set in the same House as book one with many of the same characters so it seems as if it’s a replay, save that events play out wholly differently.
The same originality of big-picture concept I enjoyed in book one remains here, though in a more limited fashion. And there’s clear craft here. I have nothing to criticize on that level — it’s not badly written. For instance, Muir shows facility with multiple POVs, including second person. But what it came down to is I just didn’t care. I found 90% of the book (and I mean that literally — OK, maybe 87% based on my Kindle) incredibly tedious. It’s been a long, long time since I haven’t cared to this degree about character or plot. Each time I complained to my family, they asked why I was still reading it, and honestly, I’m not sure why beyond that I knew it was going to be a much discussed/publicized book.
As for the last ten percent or so, the action does kick up, but basically it felt like an overwrought, melodramatic rush of one character after another revealing a particular plot. I could go into more detail, but I won’t bother. Suffice to say I wish I had stopped 100 pages in rather than continuing to slog through another 400+ pages. I’m sure people will be raving about this one as they did Gideon the Ninth, but I’ll be ending the series here.
I’m late to the party, and in the minority on Tamsyn Muir’s second novel, Harrow the Ninth. I liked it a little more than Bill and I’m happy to give it three stars, but by the end of the book, irritation throttled interest and I just wanted it to be done.
I think the ginger biscuits did me in.
Harrow the Ninth picks up shortly — or maybe not so shortly — after the end of Gideon the Ninth. A second-person narrator lets us know right away that Things Are Not What They Seem, as Harrow, surrounded by the Emperor’s lyctors, struggles to fully integrate her lyctor powers. As Harrow’s story unfolds, kind of, alternating second-person and third person narratives, we see more of the Undying Emperor and his merry band of ten-thousand-year-old minions, learning about fearsome Resurrection Beasts, the souls of murdered planets, and the existence of a band of rebels. And we start to wonder just what’s happened, because Harrow’s recollection of events at the ruined palace of Canaan House doesn’t match ours at all.
Let me discuss the things I enjoyed, because there is a lot to like in this series. The River was a wonderful image and a great plot element, fully utilized in the story. As before, the twisted, gory, icky necromantic magic is just awesome. This series has a convoluted, elaborate plot built of secrets, and the incremental, puzzle-piece release of information. Muir has mastered that. A character voice I had been waiting for came back about fifty pages from the end, and I was happy to read that. And fifty pages from the end the story accelerated.
Second-person narrator (which I might call First-Person-Narrator-Not-Exactly-Present in this narrative) is a hard sell, but Muir delivers.
And soup. As others have mentioned, what the book does for soup is … memorable.
The story is defiantly, flippantly unconcerned with dropping twenty/twenty-first century references into a story set ten thousand years in the future. In Book One I gave this a pass because, cleverness, and because Gideon was a character who made the behavior believable, although barely. Here, every character does it. We know that The Undying Emperor is ten thousand years old, and we assume that before he … um, ascended, he was probably a fortysomething hedge-fund manager living in a view apartment in London, working in The City, swilling good scotch and snacking on bone marrow appetizers down at the gastropub in the evenings. I can make a conscious effort to accept that he and his handpicked minions would, for some reason, despite (theoretically) having ten thousand years of experience, have kept their favorite pet catch phrases from a formative time in their lives, the same was I still say, “Right on,” and “Groovy,” all the time. Only, wait. I don’t do that.
Please understand that to many readers, this is a feature, not a bug.
The reference problem might not have annoyed me quite as much if the structure of the book had not followed almost exactly the structure of its predecessor. There is a difference between the container of a book — the structure — and the contained — the content. The content of Harrow the Ninth is substantively different, but the sameness of the container drove home to me again and again all the things that were bugging me. Harrow is a convincingly morose, Goth seventeen-year-old of twenty-first century vintage. Again, what is a feature for many others was a bug for me.
And now we come to the ginger biscuits, which the God, the Undying Emperor, the Lord, the Necrolord, aka John, dips into his tea. Over and over and over. And over. It’s bad enough that one of his minions is lighting a cigarette every other minute (because cigarettes, cool!), but the ginger biscuits pushed me over the edge. Ten thousand years and no one came up with a different cookie you could dip in your tea? Seriously? That did it. I was out.
I rushed to pre-order this book because Gideon the Ninth surprised me by how much I liked it. Possibly Harrow suffered from unmanaged expectations. Whatever reason, even though I finished it, Harrow did not delight, and while I may read Alecto the Ninth, I’ll definitely be waiting for the paperback.
THE LOCKED TOMB TRILOGY BOOK 1: Gideon the Ninth BOOK 2: Harrow the Ninth BOOK 3: Alecto the Ninth
Bill, you may be the outlier in this column but I am there in the Curmudgeon Corner with you. We can take turns shouting at Muir to get off our lawn.
Also her music is too loud and just sounds like noise. Team curmudgeon!
And she’s going to go outside wearing that!
I’ll be there watching the two of you yelling, and clutching my pearls just a little bit.
Definitely am getting a retro New Wave vibe from this series, with little flashbacks of Bester, Zelazny, Delany and Moorcock. Which is more than fine with me, since I came of age devouring that stuff as it was being published. But if you didn’t enjoy that style, I can see how these books might make you a bit grumpy. If that’s the case, another trilogy to stay away from would be Mary Gentle’s White Crow (or Rat Lords) books.
I will say that I thought Muir did the 2nd person POV–which I sometimes call 1st Person Absent (or in this case, 1st Person Not Exactly Present)– quite well.