Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Can Tamsyn Muir's queer gothic necromancy series get any better? Yes it can.

Cover Art: Tommy Arnold
All right, limber up folks, because today we're diving into one of 2020's most anticipated sequels: more lesbians, more space, more everything. As you'd expect, this will have spoilers for Gideon the Ninth, but I will keep the description of Harrow the Ninth as spoiler free as its possible to be in this riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma of a book - save for one thing, which I will call "The Big Question". If you have read Gideon the Ninth, you probably already know (and are possibly quite desperate to find out about) the Big Question. This is a safe space and I won't anybody who comes here needing to know *spoiler spoiler spoiler* before it gets naturally unravelled within the text. However, in order to help you out while making sure that this page is free of Harrow spoilers, all I can do if you want the answer to the Big Question is offer you a link to the most accurate way I can answer it. I'm sure this clears everything up and we can now all move on, yes? Good.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last surviving child of her insular death-worshipping family, has survived the trials of Canaan House and come out the other side a Lyctor: one of the Emperor's deathless servants, able to work with apparently limitless amounts of necromantic power and fulfil what she feels is her ultimate purpose in life. Unfortunately, she's also a complete mess, incapable of doing anything except screaming and vomiting for the first several weeks of her Lyctorhood - and once she reattains consciousness and finds out the whole deal with the empire and why her presence is now needed, things don't get much better either internally or externally. See, it turns out that in order for the Resurrection ten thousand years ago to have created the House system and restarted the sun, the Necrolord Prime and Emperor of the Nine Houses (a man also known as "John") needed to effectively kill the planets on which the nine houses are based and modify their energies into those on which necromancy itself is based. Only in the same way that murdered humans can end up as vengeful revenants, so too can murdered planets turn into planet-sized undead cosmic horrors, who can only be defeated by humans through complex and equally horrific acts of magic. The Emperor and his surviving coterie - all of whom have been around since the start of the process as well - have managed to take down some of the beasts, but now one is on its way, and Harrow and fellow baby Lyctor Ianthe need to train up to become part of the battle to vanquish it.

Harrow's present is interspersed with scenes from the house, and from the trials she faced... except these don't match up with our own experience of the events, particularly when it comes to the necromancer at her side. Because what Harrow remembers is undergoing the trials with Ortus Nigenand, the indolent, cowardly cavalier who fled the scene early in Gideon the Ninth and ended up making space for Gideon to join. Though Harrow doesn't have the information to figure this out, as readers we're pretty sure that these weird memories probably have something to do with why Harrow's Lyctor powers aren't working properly. Because - and this is your last warning for Gideon the Ninth spoilers - Lyctors need to take in and absorb the souls of their dead cavaliers in order to power parts of their magic, in particular their uncanny healing abilities and the ability to remain physically adept at self-defence while mentally battling in "the River": aka the weird necromancy subdomain which also allows for instantaneous space travel as long as you can survive all the ghostly horrors and the weird metaphors your new colleagues will use to explain it to you. Without Gideon's presence in Harrow's mind or memories, she apparently has no access to the most important weapons she has to stay alive, meaning there's no point in worrying how good a necromancer she is because she's not going to be able to survive to tell the tale.

The apparent development of a Gideon-free Ninth House adventure could outstay its welcome in other hands, especially if we weren't pretty sure from the very start that this absence is a mystery to be solved in the text. Instead, the combined present-and-not-quite-past narratives allow Harrow the Ninth to expand on some of the mechanics of necromancy through Harrow's eyes, and offer a better sense of just what this millennia-old system of houses has been set up for and what's behind the Emperor's mysterious disappearance from his own empire. There's also the introduction of The Sleeper into the past narratives, a deadly mystery force who appears to be unrelated to all the previous deaths, and who starts picking off the characters of Canaan house in a different order to the one we originally saw, though with similar effect. All of this is told in a style that, while  less overtly irreverent than Gideon's running commentary, still doesn't skimp either on the loving descriptions of human anatomy (this time around, the bones usually have specific names, because of course Harrow wants to tell you exactly what bone a construct has come from) or the occasional deployment of metatextual memeage used without knowledge by the characters (though there's at least one who knows exactly what they are doing). These moments regularly come at a point where they kick a scene from poignant and/or brutal to "I am now feeling all of the emotions", and reader, I did feel all of the emotions, messily and out loud.

As in Gideon the Ninth, the characters are delightfully human and also delightfully awful to each other. Because the First House has been pared back so brutally, and is comprised entirely of people who have killed their loved ones in order to ascend to their current powerful states, the dynamics and interactions between its members are claustrophobic and excruciating, and Harrow's weakness and... Harrow-ness... means that she very much becomes part of the negative dynamic as a written-off walking corpse. That claustrophobia makes it almost a relief to escape into the past Canaan, and to see the ways that relationships start developing differently in the murder house - particularly with Abigail Pent taking the fore, a character who only had the briefest time to shine in the first book. It's difficult to talk about the Canaan plot without giving too much away, but I will note that the way the dead characters are handled ends up being an advancement of plot lines rather than a relitigation, and this alternate reality ends up dovetailing with Harrow's present to build to a glorious climax.

And that's the real big question, with a book this dense and complex and self-contradictory: is Muir going to pull it off? In a word: fuck yes. It's that payoff to a deeply ambitious structure that really puts Harrow over the top, even when compared to its juicy but more classically-plotted predecessor; it takes serious talent to turn part of your sequel into a nonsensical retcon of the events of the previous book without completely losing your audience, let alone to turn that retcon into a vital strand of the plot and a vehicle for character growth in its own right. Even when it's refusing to take itself and its own genre seriously on the surface, every twist in Harrow's tale draws the audience deeper into its terrifying, ridiculous, mystical world and the people within it. This is a rare series that lives up to its hype and then some, and Harrow the Ninth one of the best books I've ever read.

The Math

Baseline Score: 10/10

Bonuses: +1 a split narrative that knocks it out of the park in terms of character development and timeskipping mystery solving; +1 bones

Penalties: -1 Hard to put down before the Big Question gets resolved, may impact on sleep and other basic life functions (but it's OK, it's a necromancy book); -1 Harrow's lack of upper body strength

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Muir, Tamsyn. Harrow the Ninth [Tor.com Publishing, 2020]