Title: Harrow the Ninth
by Tamsyn Muir
Published August 2020 (Tor.com)
I was looking forward to this book so much, and I came away from it so happy. But, I also wanted to give up on it at one point and will probably never read it again. With all the complex feelings Harrow the Ninth gave me, I figured it was time for another big review.
To talk about Harrow the Ninth, I first need to talk about Gideon the Ninth. I initially avoided Gideon; I guess all the hype I’d heard around the book turned me off. Eventually I caved tand I am glad I did because I loved that book so much. The blurb of Gideon the Ninth reads; “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic mansion in space”, and there was a lot of talk about how skeletons were everywhere, and I just did not know what to make of this book. Upon reading it, I found this story to be a fun and at times hilarious mash-up of science fiction, horror, fantasy and teenagers shit-talking each other in the most over the top way possible.
Gideon the Ninth follows Gideon Nav, an orphaned indentured servant stuck in the bone-obsessed death cult of the Ninth House. Gideon is not a necromancer, but she is a master swordswoman who dreams of escaping and joining the cohort (the Empire’s space military force). The only other person her age is Harrowhark ‘Harrow’ Nonagesimus: Reverend Daughter, heir of the Ninth House, and insanely powerful necromancer. And they absolutely hate each other. Cannot stand to be around each other, have fought all their lives, and wish the other dead. Unfortunately, when Harrow is invited by the Emperor to the First House to compete with other heirs for the chance to become Lyctors (Immortal, Uber-powerful Necromancers who serve the Emperor), she needs to bring along a cavalier, and Gideon is her only choice. Cue the pair reluctantly travelling to the planet of the First House and working together to solve deadly puzzles and figure out who keeps killing the other necromancers and cavaliers.
The first thing that drew me in was the scathing dialog. From the first fight Gideon and Harrow have, I knew I wanted to know more about these characters. Here’s a quote of Gideon saying she doesn’t want to work with Harrow:
“The only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted someone to hold the sword as you fell on it. The only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted your ass kicked so hard, the Locked Tomb opened and a parade came out to sing, ‘Lo! A destructed ass.’ The only job I’d do would be if you wanted me to spot you while you backflipped off the top tier into Drearburh.”
I also loved this book because it has a ‘game’ element to it. The necromancer/cavalier duos are tasked with discovering the secret of achieving Lyctorhood. They are only given empty keyrings and instructions not to go through any locked doors without asking. Things become more complicated with the discovery of challenges, hidden studies, and a limited amount of keys. On top of these Lyctor trials, someone, or something, is killing off the cast, making the alliances between all these interesting characters vital. Of course, the best relationship in this story is that between Gideon and Harrow, who have a lot of bad blood between them, yet also have gone through a lot together, and continue to go through a lot during the Lyctor trials. They are both young queer women who develop strong feelings for each other, but their relationship is not really romantic. Things are way too complicated for that.
The end of Gideon the Ninth was quite a shocker, so Harrow the Ninth went straight on my To Read list. I was looking forward to Harrow the Ninth so much. I wanted to see what would happen to Harrow after that ending in the first book. I wanted to learn more about the Emperor; to meet this Emperor Undying, Necrolord Prime, God of the Nine Houses. I wanted to see more of this universe. So I dived into Harrow the Ninth with very high expectations.
And well, I really liked how the Emperor was portrayed. We got to see a lot of him, and we also got to see a lot of different ways people interacted with this god-like, legendary, but affable and friendly being.
Not saying I didn’t like this book. As I said, I came away from this book really happy. There were so many satisfying moments and tons of action and character development. There were big Oh Fuck moments, and big Fuck Yeah moments. Big questions that were left unanswered in the first book were given the most amazing answers here. There were scenes revisiting characters from the first book that made me super happy. There was the biggest grin on my face as I revisited Canaan House with the old cast. There was also a sword fight that was so absolutely over-the-top and I loved it. Harrow the Ninth packs so much awesome stuff, written in a sharp, funny and engaging way.
Unfortunately it packs all that awesome stuff mostly into the last 30% of the book. The first 70% of the book however… well, I don’t want to say it’s bad, because it isn’t really. It is well written, with a lot of humor, and we learn a more about the world, the Emperor’s history, and Harrow. There were also a lot of parts of the first 70% I liked, like the conflict between Ortus and Harrow (especially the soup scene) and the mystery surrounding the letters. The best way I can describe the first 70% of Harrow the Ninth is by comparing it to watching the first two episodes of WandaVision. I know what I am seeing does not make any sense, and there are hints that an explanation is coming, but I was motivated more by a need to know what was going on than the actual plot I was being presented with. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s nice when writers respect their audience enough to not just spoon feed them every little plot detail. Usually, audiences are pretty good at picking up on things, and at waiting patiently in order to learn information at the most relevant time.
But Harrow the Ninth is 512 pages long. Tamsyn Muir asks as to wait for a long time as she leads us through a story with a protagonist whose understanding of events in the first book don’t match ours. We have to relearn Gideon the Ninth, and we aren’t given a lot of clues as to why. That this book contains Lyctors and a God Emperor whose abilities seem nearly limitless, makes it harder to rule out possible explanations. To even get to a point where we can figure out what is going on, we need to learn some pretty complicated principles of necromancy. To make it even worse, while we are going through all this, the long awaited exploration of the consequences of the ending of Gideon the Ninth are put on hold.
Of course, this is probably telling you more about my patience than the quality of Harrow the Ninth. All I can say, is that I can’t remember the last time I was this frustrated with a well written book. I wish it had been a little shorter; I think that would have helped. As it is, I think if you found Gideon the Ninth to be ‘meh, this was alright; I’ll keep reading this series’, I don’t think you’d be able to get through Harrow the Ninth. You need to come into this book already in love with this story and super invested in Harrow and Gideon.
Fortunately, I did come into Harrow the Ninth in love with the story and invested in Harrow and Gideon. I found the payoffs of this book so satisfying, and despite my complaining, I admit part of that was because everything was so confusing for so long. Of course, like any good middle book, Harrow the Ninth leaves many mysteries for the conclusion, Alecto the Ninth, to explore. This means that my opinion about Harrow the Ninth will change next year depending on how my reading of Alecto goes.
In just the month between finishing this book and writing this review, my feelings about it have changed. Right after I finished it, I thought this was one of the best books I’d read in ages. Then I remembered how hard I struggled to get through the first part of the book. I remembered wondering if I really wanted to continue reading, and forcing myself to keep going because I just needed to know. I split the difference in my Goodreads review with three stars. As more time passes though, I find my opinion of Harrow the Ninth getting more positive. Part of this is because the good parts of this book (and the good parts of this series) keep staying with me, whilst boring parts are easily forgotten. Another factor is that the more I think about some elements, the more I like them.
Let’s use the perspective as an example. In Harrow the Ninth, events in the present are initially told in second person, whilst flashbacks to events in the past are told in third person. For comparison, Gideon the Ninth was told entirely in third person. Now, I’ve already explained that events in this book don’t seem to match up with events from the first book. Add to that a sudden change to second person (and also, the opening scene is a sneak peek into an action-packed later part of the story) and yeah, I was totally lost.
Despite being confusing and weird at first, I got used to the second person parts. The only other book I can think of that uses second person and isn’t a choose your own is N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, and I feel that book did some very clever things with the different perspectives. My first instinct when I realised why Harrow the Ninth was in second person was ‘oh yeah, that makes sense, this is so cool’. Then when I thought about it I was like ‘wait no, that doesn’t make sense’. Thinking about it more though, it does make sense, but it’s still kinda weird. I can’t talk about why without spoilers. Which has been the case for most of this review: The ending of Gideon the Ninth was such a big shake up that it is nearly impossible to talk about anything that happens with Harrow the Ninth without spoiling it. I’m actually surprised I managed to write so much for this review.
My fluctuating opinion on Harrow the Ninth is why I decided to write this review now, rather than wait until it is time to write it in a book bingo post. By the time I get a bingo with the ‘set on a space station’ square, I’ll probably forget all the problems I had with this individual book, and just remember all the stuff I love about this series.
The space station I am referencing to is the Mithraeum; the Emperor’s space habitat, located 40 billion light years away from the solar system (yes; at the edge of the observable universe. They swim there.) and full of the bones of honoured martyrs. Quite literally filled; there are skulls everywhere. This isn’t the usual story that comes to mind when the words ‘space station’ or ‘space habitat’ are said, but it still counts. (don’t know what I’m talking about? Click here to read about my book bingo challenge.)
Now I need to wait until 2022 to finish the series. In the meantime, there is a nice little story about the Sixth House up on Tor.com: It’s about Dr. Sex. I hope Muir writes more short stories set in this world; despite my problems with Harrow the Ninth, I am still hungry for more of this crazy world.