But Harrowhark—Harrow, who was two hundred dead children; Harrow, who loved something that had not been alive for ten thousand years—Harrowhark Nonagesimus had always wanted so badly to live. She had cost too much to die.
Gideon the Ninth was one of the most effervescent fantasy debuts of 2019, and I picked it up solely because I was seduced by the revealed cover of its sequel, Harrow the Ninth, because excuse me, have you seen it? Anyway, I ended up really liking Gideon the Ninth, and I wrote in my review of it that it is “a book that thrust its hips lewdly into my face over and over again, but it did it with enough agility and artistry that I let it get away with it”. If I am to likewise condense Harrow the Ninth in a single line, it would go something like “the audacity of this… holy mother of fucks, is she allowed to do this?!”
Floating like sea foam above the ocean of opinions out there for Ms Muir’s latest book right now is (a) I have no idea what’s going on when I read it, but (b) I love it. To discuss this, I would have to spoil the first book, which ended with SPOILERS (Highlight to Reveal): [the heroic sacrifice of the titular Gideon at Canaan House to allow Harrow to ascend to Lyctorhood]. The events of Harrow the Ninth picked up right after Gideon the Ninth, and the Harrow we meet here is a paranoid emotional wreck who remembers the events at Canaan House in Book 1 very differently. Her Cavalier Primary was the craven Ortus Ninegad, a minor character who exited the story early, instead of our beloved Gideon Nav, and characters who were dead were alive and vice versa. I guess what most readers found most disorienting is that for most of the book, Harrow’s memories of book 1 simply does not match our memories as readers. Furthermore, one of her most hated rivals in book 1, Ianthe Tridentarius, is now a begrudging ally who gave Harrow a series of cryptic notes from Harrow herself, each containing instructions for a bunch of probable and improbable contingencies, including for when she meets people who had supposedly died. But this is fantasy series about necromancers, so I doubt there was even a single reader who expects character deaths to be capital P “Permanent” (but then again, deaths of characters in fantasy have always been negotiable ever since Mr Tolkien set the standard with Gandalf, Mr Lewis with Aslan, and Mr Yahweh with Jesus).
Adding to the sense of disorientation is Ms Muir’s decision to narrate the “present day” scenes in the 2nd person, because why not? I have read a small number of books which experimented with such a narrative voice with variable degrees of success, and I cannot think of any book which warranted it more than Harrow the Ninth. There were concerns that the shift from Gideon’s POV to dour Harrow’s would alter the sardonic tone of the series (mainly the unceasing roast of Harrow) but those concerns were largely allayed by this device,
You found your mouth and eyes screwing up, as though against the light, or a sour taste; you could not help it. But the vile course of action was obvious. You leant down and—holy shit—kissed her squarely on the mouth.
This, at least, she hadn’t expected—how could she, what the fuck—and her mouth froze against yours, which gave you time to work.
In Harrow the Ninth, Harrow finally meets the Emperor of the Nine Houses, the necromantic God whom she is now bound to serve as a Lyctor, except Harrow seems to have botched the process of turning into a full-featured Lyctor with all the bells and whistles, jeopardising her participation in an upcoming battle with a planetoid-sized being called the Resurrection Beast . Meanwhile, the Emperor is like no other interstellar ruler I’ve encountered in fiction before: he is goofy, playful and amicable, with a penchant for puns and jokes, something which causes the devout Harrow no small amount of cognitive dissonance,
It destroyed some cavern of your reverence to watch Augustine punch the Prince Undying on the arm, and to watch the Prince Undying gamely cuff him back. Part of your brain temporarily calcified into atheism.
Joining the cast alongside Harrow, Ianthe, and the Emperor are the three senior Lyctors serving the Emperor: Augustine, a cool chain-smoking big brother type; Mercymorn, a waspish big sister who mistook Harrow for a 15-year-old and through the course of the book, continued to comically revise Harrow’s age lower and lower in condescension; and Ortus, who coincidentally shares the same name as Harrow’s original cowardly cavalier, and attempts repeatedly to violently murder Harrow for reasons unknown (because we can always use another mystery). While I wasn’t overly impressed by most of the characters in the 1st book, considering the little time we spent with each of them bar a few, each character in Harrow the Ninth receives sufficient screen time to endear them to us
As much as I enjoyed Gideon the Ninth, I wasn’t a fan of its conceit as a Hunger Games-esque locked room mystery because its final twist felt like a betrayal of its medium, and left quite a mess. Harrow the Ninth, in spite of its contribution in massively complicating the lore of these books’ world, actually managed to give us plenty of satisfactory answers that makes sense, while leaving plenty for the 3rd book, the forthcoming Alecto the Ninth, to answer (hopefully). Ms Muir’s writing is visceral and ornate, and her appetite for two-dollar words like “tergiversation” and “peregrinations” would give China Miéville a run for his money—yet she somehow managed to preserve a distinctively millennial sensibility that whiplashes between pathos and bathos with practiced ease. That is the core of Ms Muir’s sense of humour. We see it in internet culture. We see it in those quippy Marvel films. I remember back when fantasy readers complained about the swear-words used in A Song of Ice and Fire and the Gentleman Bastard series, saying that they felt too contemporary, breaking immersion. Yet Ms Muir went right on ahead and stuffed her books full of memes. I have not laughed so much reading a book, any book, in a long long time, and Muir’s talent for comedy rivals that of Terry Pratchett, Jonathan Stroud, and Christopher Moore at their best, and yet she felt like a completely different breed of author apart. Hers is a talent forged and honed in fan-fiction, where AU’s (alternate universe fanfic) are commonplace tools of writing and it is deliciously meta when Ms Muir wrote not just one but several AU’s of her own work within her own work (including—I’m not shitting you—a freaking Coffee Shop AU). Yes, even for someone like me whose suspension of disbelief is fragile, I (somehow) remained fully on board and accepting even when Ms Muir references Eminem and Evanescence in her queer necromancy space fantasy. There is no one writing in the genre now that writes like Tamsyn Muir, and it is an exciting feeling to be part of her self-propelled one-woman zeitgeist.
“You’ve got two short minutes before I punch you in right in the butthole,” I said.
“Follow me. We haven’t got much time—quite apart from your hurtful threats of sexual violence,” she said. “Why, your fist is so big, and my butthole is so small.”
There is also a density of genuine emotions and trauma in Harrow the Ninth that is difficult to stomach, even if they do get undercut often by outrageously (and deliberately) ill-timed jokes. I wonder if some of the heavier moments would have landed better without their cushion of humour. I am torn of course, when I think back to these moments: on one hand, they have the potential to be a lot more powerful when played straight, but at the same time, I understand why Ms Muir simply could not resist landing those cracks. Also, while Ms Muir found a hundred ways to describe vomit or the act of vomiting (Harrow pukes like a nervous sea cucumber through the first act of the book), I simply cannot understand her affection for the word “flimsy”. Is this a NZ or UK thing? Don’t they have regular paper in this world?
It is August now and Harrow the Ninth is simply the most exhilarating read I had in 2020. It is for me, a huge improvement on the already stunning Gideon the Ninth (which will now probably make a lot more sense to me on re-reads). If you read Gideon the Ninth and loved the sense of humour, but did not care for the plot (like I was), you should definitely read Harrow the Ninth. If you found the writing in the first book to be too avant-garde or juvenile for your liking, Harrow the Ninth will not bring you any new joy. Unless you are looking for a good soup recipe, of course. Because Harrow makes the best damn soup.