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Harrow the Ninth

August 14, 2020

IMG_4134Harrow is well-named; reading Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth is a harrowing experience, although the feeling is balanced with humor, affecting scenes, and memorable characters. When I reviewed the first novel in this series, Gideon the Ninth, I said I didn’t find the world-building to be particularly well done, and that’s also true of this novel except that it’s beside the point. The world is what Harrow and her fellow Lyctors have made it and are still making it.

There’s a nice little creation story for Harrow’s world of necromancy:
“They were disciples, to begin with. Ten normal human beings of the Resurrection, though half were blessed already with necromantic gifts. But necromancy alone does not confer eternal life. Our Lord, the First Reborn, kept those ten devotees young and alive through his sheer might, but it was a shadow of living… They had to stay tucked near the Emperor’s feet so as not to strain his powers.”

That we believe Harrow is in a kind of Heaven with God and his saints when we begin to read Harrow the Ninth is a credit to the power of her voice and personality. By the time we get to the point where God and one of his saints are being sucked into a monstrous stoma, it’s clear that the characters have actually been harrowing hell.


(A couple of the traditional illustrations of harrowing hell)

And even though I expressed the hope that this second novel would “run on more than snark and sarcasm” and it does, it turns out that the juxtaposition of Harrow’s sense of dignity with the irreverence of the language of memes, song lyrics, and even fantasy alternate universes is just as funny and propels the action along quite as well. I know I didn’t catch all the references, but that’s part of the fun (and presumably a sideways reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, full of allusions that the poet knew many people wouldn’t get, allowing him to mourn the loss of an earlier golden age when presumably everybody read everything and got all the references).

Even at a culminating moment, when a character has just found out who her parents are and for what purpose she was made, she rises to the heroic bait of hearing that “your mother would’ve picked the bullet” with the meme-ish reply “yes, well, jail for Mother.”

Harrow’s outside sense of dignity is apparent early on, when someone repeatedly declares himself unworthy and she finally says drily that she is fully aware of his unworthiness and since “it has constituted one hundred percent of our exchanges over the years, I can only assume you are coming to some new point, and begin to feel excitement.” I particularly enjoy her stiffness when she has been spying on someone and reports “I caught the Saint of Duty in the throes of grave lust” and the person so informed responds “Was he actually… ? You know. Waxing necrolagnic? Committing the love that cannot speak its name?”

Even though the novel seems to focus as much as it can on Harrow’s point of view, she is confused and so passes on some of that confusion to the reader. It’s rarely clear who is doing what to whom, but it’s still enjoyable to be immersed in the narrative, as in the moment when Harrow and her impenetrable dignity are first immersed in what the characters call the River, which is full of what seem to be corpses:
“The wail was coming from within the shuttle. It had a hard, pained edge to it, like frustration. You cast around trying to figure out from where. There was another big wet thump as a fourth body slammed itself on the plex, and this one managed to hold on, scrabbling gruesomely; but you focused on the thin cry of violence. You found yourself saying ‘Someone’s crying, Lord,’ but he just made a nonsense sound beneath his breath, a mumbled word that you didn’t recognize.”

Muir calls our attention to the way we’re seeing Harrow’s world with irreverent conversation between God, who wants to be called “Teacher,” and his Lyctors, who are often referred to as “Saints”:
God said….”there will be times in your future when you will have to move unfettered by needing an obelisk, and even times yet to come when you will fulfil the sacred Lyctoral duty of setting obelisks, and that means travel through the River. I like to think of it as descending into a well.”
….”Teacher,” said Mercy, “it is the River. There is a perfectly good water metaphor waiting for you.”
“Well, I want the idea of two depths, and I don’t want to confuse them with the idea of speed where none—”
“—it’s the River, which perfectly well lets you say, Imagine the River—”

There is a wonderful battle scene in which everyone has to speak in verse and fight in the style described in the fictional epic poem of the Ninth House, the Noniad.

Despite the ridiculous dignity of the main character, the confusion of people and events, and the joking manner in which much of it is told, this story has real stakes. I was particularly moved by God’s explanation to Harrow about what an apocalypse would mean, as it rings true in our current era of death and pestilence:
“I think you are one of the only Lyctors who can really and truly understand apocalypse…It is not a death of fire. It’s not showy. You and I would almost prefer the end, if it came as a supernova. It is the inexorable setting of the sun, without another hope of morning.”

The emotional heart of the novel, of course, is what happened and is still happening between Gideon and Harrow. It was both amusing and heartbreaking when one of them said “reality went through me. Kind of like a big iron railing, now that I think about it. You were gone. You’d left me behind. Inside you.”

There was a big mystery about Gideon’s mother left over from the first novel and it’s laid out here like a corpse for us to pick over (the tone of what I’ve been reading is contagious, evidently). As a bonus, we find out who her dad is too, and at the moment of realization he makes a dad joke.

As in all good magical tales, knowing someone’s full name turns out to be important. In this novel, of course, that also means it turns out to be funny. God even comments on this when someone demands that he:
“Call me by my full name, or don’t name me at all.”
The Emperor of the Nine Houses sighed.
“Commander Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead,” he said.
“All of it.”
….There was the preparatory sound of indrawn breath.
“Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead Kia Hua Ko Te Pai Snap Back to Reality Oops There Goes Gravity,” he recited, all in one breath. “Correct?”
“They’re dead words—a human chain reaching back ten thousand years,” said the corpse. “How did they feel?”
“Genuinely sad, bordering on very funny,” said God.

That’s as good a way to describe Harrow the Ninth as any. It’s “genuinely sad, bordering on very funny” all the way through.

 

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2020 9:05 pm

    Ooh! That cover is as wonderfully creepy as the first book! Gideon is in my TBR…I almost considered reading it for the Book With a Number in the Title square on my bingo board, but now that I’ve reread the synopsis, I’m thinking I might abandon some of my previous Halloween Month plans for this…

    • August 17, 2020 10:08 am

      October would be a good month to read this book, with the darkness creeping in!

  2. August 15, 2020 8:07 am

    OK, I’ve added Gideon the Ninth to my TBR for the fall, too. Your review of Harrow the Ninth convinced me to start yet another trilogy, against my better judgment! 😉 I care more about the “emotional heart of the novel” than world-building. Too much world-building stuff and I start to skim passages, because I know I’m not going to remember it anyway!

    • August 17, 2020 10:10 am

      In some ways I’d say you don’t need to care too much about the world; the world is what Harrow and the other supernatural beings have made of it, based on who they love and how far they can let go of what was.

  3. August 17, 2020 8:21 am

    “A tragedy, with jokes” is always extremely my metier, so it is no surprise I loved this. I am not such a worldbuilding guy and consequently don’t care THE MOST about the worldbuilding, and in the meantime I was just so wild about the plot of this one. (The characters, too, though not QUITE as much — I was really glad we got to spend some time with the Canaan House crew, because they were all just wonderful still, whereas Mercy and Augustine and those guys are a buncha real jerks.)

    • August 17, 2020 10:12 am

      I think I was prepared for Mercy and Augustine being jerks because of watching Supernatural, where the angels are dicks!

  4. September 12, 2020 4:59 am

    Brilliant post! I love how you’ve phrased your review – it was a complicated (and confusing omg) book. Honestly I preferred Harrow to Gideon in the first book and I was really interested to hear her side of the story. Although it didn’t help that we couldn’t trust her narrative. I totally agree – it started slow, but the final chapters were worth it for me. Here’s my review: https://hundredsandthousandsofbooks.blog/2020/09/11/harrow-the-ninth-to-read-in-the-event-of-your-imminent-obsession/

    • September 12, 2020 10:30 am

      Thanks! I liked the way that the confusion came from the way these supernatural characters were imagining the world to be. I’d be confused too; it would be like one of those dreams where nothing quite makes sense and you can’t ever get to where you’re trying to go.

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