Book review: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

More necromancers in space!  Leviathan-sized beasts that can’t be killed by anything short of a black hole!  Ghosts, revenants, possessed corpses, hyperspace that looks more like a river full of floating corpses, a space station full of skeletons and planet-killing magic!  Even some fun characters that died in the previous book show up again.  What’s not to love?  Perhaps the convoluted narration, grotesque exposition and unsatisfactory ending.  Those who enjoyed Gideon the Ninth will be excited when they reach the final act but will likely put this book down before they get to that point.

The book’s universe revolves around a galactic empire ruled by a god-like emperor and eight noble houses.  After ten thousand years of uninterrupted rule, the eight Lyctors, representatives from each house with demigod powers who serve directly the emperor, are depleted.  There are only three left, and so a new group was educated to take their place.  In the first book, only two of the eight representatives survived to achieve the status of a Lyctor: Ianthe and Harrow.  They join the emperor and the surviving three Lyctors on an isolated space station.  At first, they hide from the nigh unkillable Resurrection Beast, and later they prepare to fight it.

Through series of expositions, we learn that the most powerful necromancers, such as the Lyctors, can kill entire planets in one stroke.  When the emperor first attempted it, the ghosts of the killed planets formed enormous entities, called Resurrection Beasts, which single-mindedly pursue him and his minions across the universe in an attempt to destroy them.  Several Lyctors have already sacrificed themselves in killing some of the beasts, but yet another is coming.

While the new and old Lyctors are preparing for the fight (and Harrow is trying to fight of Ortus, one of the original Lyctors, who is trying to kill her), the reader also sees many flashbacks from Harrow’s time in the Canaan house, where she learned to become a Lyctor.  However, her memories don’t match the content of the first book at all.  People who died there are alive again, and vice versa.  And some people are missing altogether.  Eventually, Harrow seems to lose herself in the memories.  There, the surviving people in the Canaan house help her remember that after she merged her consciousness with that of Gideon, her Cavalier (bodyguard) at the end of the first book, she rewired her brain so that she would forget about Gideon and thus prevent Gideon’s soul to be fully absorbed by hers.  Harrow gets trapped in her memories by a ghost who tries to take over her body, and meanwhile Gideon awakens in Harrow’s body to fight the Resurrection Beast’s underlings.  After the fight, it is revealed that Gideon had been an unwitting pawn in a conspiracy to kill the emperor, but before the emperor can execute all the traitors, the space station is plunged into the underworld river and destroyed.  Both Gideon and Harrow die.  The former in Harrow’s body, the latter in her memories.

There is much more in the book.  There is a somewhat parallel plot about a band of revolutionaries who are also trying to kill the emperor.  Gideon’s origin story is far more convoluted, and so is her relationship with Harrow as they share one body.  This, by extension, applies to all other Lyctors.  There are complicated romantic entanglements that span the entire ten thousand years, even older origin stories, and let’s not forget the unexplained cameos by the surviving characters from the first book.  I haven’t mentioned them because they make the prose even more convoluted than I make it out to be.  But don’t keep your hopes up that I’ll spare you.  I’m about to delve into the sordid details why this book almost became one of the very few titles I almost put down unfinished, and why I’m glad I didn’t.

Let’s start with the most obvious point, the narration style.  The book has alternating chapters, written either in the second person present tense or third person past tense.  So, as Harrow is the protagonist but Gideon the narrator, half of the chapters reads like this: “You wake up next to your longsword.  You get up and look at your face in the mirror.”  The other half is the more conventional “Harrow strode through the long, dark corridor.”  To add a little more confusion, towards the end a first-person narration gets mixed in.

In hindsight, the narration makes sense.  The present tense is all narrated by Gideon.  First, as she is only a passenger in Harrow’s body, she uses the second person style.  Towards the end, as she takes the helm, she switches to present tense and addresses Harrow directly.  Harrow’s memories are in the past tense.  Unfortunately, I’ve never seen anyone doing the second person style well, and Muir is firmly in the middle of the pack with her quality.  She muddles the style by alternating it with a different one, and by trying to cram too much exposition in it.

Exposition is perhaps the biggest problem with this book.  The universe is understandably weird, combining magic and technology, and the rules of either were never clearly defined in the first book.  Here, the author is trying to remedy the situation and is completely failing.  I doubt I fully understood how the universe or magic worked in this book, and I paid close attention to it for this review and my Hugo voting ballot.  From what I gather, there is a sort of purgatory-like layer between our world and hell, which acts like imaginary water, filled with ghosts and corpses that attack the living.  Only the water is sometimes real and can crush objects or drown people.  And it serves as a sort of hyperspace through which necromancers can travel really quickly.

Then there are all kinds of rules for necromancy, which are sometimes explained in tedious detail after some magical trick.  One of the strengths of the first book was that magic was not explained.  It stayed magical.  In this regard, the book had a quality similar to the Harry Potter series.  I felt that Muir wanted more science in this book, so she included all those imperfect explanations.  Explanations that may have made sense for someone who learned the basics of magic in her world, but for me, strange words and weird visuals layered on top of magic just broke my immersion.  I was already properly awed by the magic; the mumbo-jumbo on top of it didn’t do me any favors.  There is already an established way to explain magic away, if you want to take that route: create firm rules and explain the very basics, never deviate from the rules and only offer hints when the basic rules cannot explain a more complicated spell.  This lets the reader use his imagination to deduce how a spell was performed and why it worked.  Many authors already use this approach in their books, such as Sanderson’s Mistborn or Fox’s Magitech series.  In Harrow, the byzantine way the magic is explained, coupled with an unusual narration style, just slows the book down.

In fact, the first three quarters of Harrow are a real slow burner.  The present contains six people, as they lounge around an abandoned space station, waiting for their enemy to appear.  Actually, “the present” is a misnomer, as various chapters tend to jump back and forth in time.  Apart from all too quick action sequences with very obvious outcomes, the narrative consists mainly of people explaining things to Harrow.  The last quarter, when Gideon takes over, the narrative changes to fast-paced action and adolescent humor, and in fact, I personally think the wait till this point had been worth it.  However, the first two acts may cause many readers to lose interest.

There are many ways to do a slow-burning story.  I personally liked Middlegame by Seanan McGuire.  The narrative was linear, showing two people growing up and exploring their powers.  This way, I as a reader grew up with them and learned along them what their powers were and how they could be used.  As a result, when the third act rolled in, I was comfortable in following the action.  Here, however, the combination of imperfect exposition and convoluted narrative style just made reading a chore.  When the third act rolled in, nothing from the first two acts was relevant.  The beast was chased away off screen, Harrow wasn’t around at all, and Gideon, who took over, understood less of the magic than I did at that point.  In fact, the entire book completely changed its mood once it entered the third act.  Perhaps the first two acts were an elaborate setup for the third title in the series, as hinted by the epilogue, but Harrow could have done just as well without them.

It appears to me that Muir was experimenting with style in this book.  The narration and chapter structure are very different from the first book, and many readers who grew to like Gideon the Ninth will be surprised by Harrow the Ninth.  Reading the book takes much greater effort, without any payout, as the difficult parts can be completely discarded in the finale.  I appreciate Muir’s imagination in this series, and I applaud her courage to try something new here.  It’s not often that you see series change style so drastically between volumes.  Unfortunately, I feel that this one has been a misfire.

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2 Responses to Book review: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

  1. MotherofAthena says:

    Yup. Finished it in part because I was determined to see how Muir could salvage it. Nope. Not interested in reading any future books. Complicated and complex worlds can be wonderful as the stage for interesting characters. For this book, the stage was too janky and the main character, Harrow, dull. Once Gideon “returned”, some of the fun of the first book did as well but too late. I had to find reviews to understand what I’d read.

  2. Bruncvik says:

    Agreed. I was told that Harrow was suffering from disassociated personality, hence the style of narration, but I found it overly complicated for the sake of complexity, without any reward for the reader. Once Gideon returned, almost all that was written before went out of the window.

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