Harrow the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir

Cover image

Series: The Locked Tomb #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-250-31320-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 510

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

Buy at Powell's Books

Harrow the Ninth is a direct sequel to Gideon the Ninth and under absolutely no circumstances should you start reading here. You would be so lost. If you plan on reading this series, read the books as closely together as you can so that you can remember the details of the previous book. You may still resort to re-reading or searching through parts of the previous book as you go.

Muir is doing some complex structural work with Harrow the Ninth, so it's hard to know how much to say about it without spoiling some aspect of it for someone. I think it's safe to say this much: As advertised by the title, we do get a protagonist switch to Harrowhark. However, unlike Gideon the Ninth, it's not a single linear story. The storyline that picks up after the conclusion of Gideon is interwoven with apparent flashbacks retelling the story of the previous book from Harrowhark's perspective. Or at least it might have been the story of the previous book, except that Ortus is Harrowhark's cavalier, Gideon does not appear, and other divergences from the story we previously read become obvious early on.

(You can see why memory of Gideon the Ninth is important.)

Oh, and one of those storylines is written in the second person. Unlike some books that use this as a gimmick, this is for reasons that are eventually justified and partly explained in the story, but it's another example of the narrative complexity. Harrow the Ninth is dropping a lot of clues (and later revelations) in both story events and story structure, many of which are likely to upend reader expectations from the first book.

I have rarely read a novel that is this good at fulfilling the tricky role of the second book of a trilogy. Gideon the Ninth was, at least on the surface, a highly entertaining, linear, and relatively straightforward escape room mystery, set against a dying-world SF background that was more hinted at than fleshed out. Harrow the Ninth revisits and reinterprets that book in ways that add significant depth without feeling artificial. Bits of scenery in the first book take on new meaning and intention. Characters we saw only in passing get a much larger role (and Abigail is worth the wait). And we get a whole ton of answers: about the God Emperor, about Lyctors, about the world, about Gideon and Harrowhark's own pasts and backgrounds, and about the locked tomb that is at the center of the Ninth House. But there is still more than enough for a third book, including a truly intriguing triple cliffhanger ending. Harrow the Ninth is both satisfying in its own right and raises new questions that I'm desperate to see answered in the third book.

Also, to respond to my earlier self on setting, this world is not a Warhammer 40K universe, no matter how much it may have appeared in the glimpses we got in Gideon. The God Emperor appears directly in this book and was not at all what I was expecting, if perhaps even more disturbing. Muir is intentionally playing against type, drawing a sharp contrast between the God Emperor and the dramatic goth feel of the rest of the universe and many of the characters, and it's creepily effective and goes in a much different ethical direction than I had thought. (That said, I will warn that properly untangling the ethical dilemmas of this universe is clearly left to the third book.)

I mentioned in my review of Gideon the Ninth that I was happy to see more SF pulling unapologetically from fanfic. I'm going to keep beating that drum in this review in part because I think the influence may be less obvious to the uninitiated. Harrow the Ninth is playing with voice, structure, memory, and chronology in ways that I suspect the average reader unfamiliar with fanfic may associate more with literary fiction, but they would be wrongly underestimating fanfic if they did so. If anything, the callouts to fanfic are even clearer. There are three classic fanfic alternate universe premises that appear in passing, the story relies on the reader's ability to hold a canonical narrative and an alternate narrative in mind simultaneously, and the genre inspiration was obvious enough to me that about halfway through the novel I correctly guessed one of the fanfic universes in which Muir has written. (I'm not naming it here since I think it's a bit of a spoiler.)

And of course there's the irreverence. There are some structural reasons why the narrative voice isn't quite as good as Gideon the Ninth at the start, but rest assured that Muir makes up for that by the end of the book. My favorite scenes in the series so far happen at the end of Harrow the Ninth: world-building, revelations, crunchy metaphysics, and irreverent snark all woven beautifully together. Muir has her characters use Internet meme references like teenagers, which is a beautiful bit of characterization because they are teenagers. In a world that's heavy on viscera, skeletons, death, and horrific monsters, it's a much needed contrast and a central part of how the characters show defiance and courage. I don't think this will work for everyone, but it very much works for me. There's a Twitter meme reference late in the book that had me laughing out loud in delight.

Harrow the Ninth is an almost perfect second book, in that if you liked Gideon the Ninth, you will probably love Harrow the Ninth and it will make you like Gideon the Ninth even more. It does have one major flaw, though: pacing.

This was also my major complaint about Gideon, primarily around the ending. I think Harrow the Ninth is a bit better, but the problem has a different shape. The start of the book is a strong "what the hell is going on" experience, which is very effective, and the revelations are worth the build-up once they start happening. In between, though, the story drags on a bit too long. Harrow is sick and nauseated at the start of the book for rather longer than I wanted to read about, there is one too many Lyctor banquets than I think were necessary to establish the characters, and I think there's a touch too much wandering the halls.

Muir also interwove two narrative threads and tried to bring them to a conclusion at the same time, but I think she had more material for one than the other. There are moments near the end of the book where one thread is producing all the payoff revelations the reader has been waiting for, and the other thread is following another interminable and rather uninteresting fight scene. You don't want your reader saying "argh, no" each time you cut away to the other scene. It's better than Gideon the Ninth, where the last fifth of the book is mostly a running battle that went on way longer than it needed to, but I still wish Muir had tightened the story throughout and balanced the two threads so that we could stay with the most interesting one when it mattered.

That said, I mostly noticed the pacing issues in retrospect and in talking about them with a friend who was more annoyed than I was. In the moment, there was so much going on here, so many new things to think about, and so much added depth that I devoured Harrow the Ninth over the course of two days and then spent the next day talking to other people who had read it, trading theories about what happened and what will happen in the third book. It was the most enjoyable reading experience I've had so far this year.

Gideon the Ninth was fun; Harrow the Ninth was both fun and on the verge of turning this series into something truly great. I can hardly wait for Alecto the Ninth (which doesn't yet have a release date, argh).

As with Gideon the Ninth, content warning for lots and lots of gore, rather too detailed descriptions of people's skeletons, restructuring bits of the body that shouldn't be restructured, and more about bone than you ever wanted to know.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-09-30

Last modified and spun 2020-10-10