Harrow the Ninth
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be major spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.
Yes, okay, Gideon was better. Bear with me, because Harrow might seem like a slog for the first 2/3 of the book, but she does get better, and she is worth every minute of the trek. Admittedly I had a hard time getting into the story, which somehow manages to be interesting, agonizing, jam-packed with information, and paced in time to the average velocity of molasses sliding down a hill; I also found it difficult to follow a lot of the more intricate necromantic details, up to and including the whole deal with the Resurrection Beasts. Somewhat unfortunately, you really do need all that information in order to appreciate the delightful chaos that is the final third of the book. The sheer wonderfulness of the insanity that kicks off around the 2/3 mark almost defies description, but I’m going to try.
Harrow the Ninth picks up about a year after the events of Gideon the Ninth, and, well, there’s a lot of catching up to do. Reverend Daughter Harrowhark “Harrow” Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House and best frenemy of the deceased Gideon Nav, is now Harrowhark the First, ninth Lyctor to the Emperor of the Nine Houses, the King Undying, the Resurrector, Man Who Became God and God Who Became Man (more simply addressed as “Lord,” “Teacher,” or “John,” depending upon the speaker). At the point that we catch up with her, she is sitting on a spaceship waiting to be torn to pieces by hordes of undead wasps. Her current life, as well as the events that led her to this impasse, are related by a seemingly omniscient narrator, who speaks in the second person. Alternating chapters are narrated in the third person by Harrow herself, and they go back through her memories of her time at Canaan House, but with a twist: Gideon is briefly mentioned but never seen, and Harrow is instead accompanied by Ortus Nigenad, a completely unqualified cavalier who would rather spend his time writing epic poetry. Though Harrow’s rewritten story seems watertight – at least to her – her characters increasingly begin to question this version of events, and she is also stalked by a shadowy figure known as the Sleeper, who features prominently in her rewrite.
In the real world, meanwhile, the present-day Harrow has other problems: she is in love with the corpse of a girl buried in the basement of the Ninth House; she is supposed to be a fully functioning Lyctor, but her powers aren’t what they should be, so she has to make do with clunky workarounds that routinely threaten her life; Gideon’s sword keeps looking at her funny; physical training is a trial; Ortus the First keeps trying to murder her for no obvious reason; she sawed open her own brain in a desperate attempt to preserve what was left of Gideon’s soul before it was assimilated into hers, and now her head won’t stop bleeding at inconvenient moments; and she is stuck with Ianthe the First, eighth saint to serve the King Undying and a classmate of sorts, as they were at Canaan House together and became Lyctors on the same day. Further complicating matters is Ianthe’s growing crush on Harrow, which is heavily unrequited because, again, Harrow is in love with a corpse. Tossed onto a spaceship with no one but each other, God, and adult Lyctors Augustine the First, Mercymorn the First, and Ortus the First for company, Harrow and Ianthe manage to band together against common threats, and even bond a little bit before the necromantic shit hits the fan.
While I realize that necromantic shit hitting fans is not a desirable state of affairs, particularly when it arrives in the form of the undead wasps (known as “Heralds”), this is the precursor to the best part of the book and is therefore 100% necessary, because Gideon comes back. After spending most of the book as a semi-omniscient narrator in the basement of Harrow’s brain, Gideon unexpectedly roars back to consciousness when Harrow is stabbed and left for dead by Mercymorn somewhere around the beginning of the final battle. Finding herself in the River, which seems to be a sort of halfway place between the living and the dead, Harrow is forced to confront the fact of Gideon’s death while Gideon, without any Harrows in the way, is finally released to her full power as a Lyctor’s cavalier. This still isn’t a whole hell of a lot of power, given that Harrow has zero muscles and Gideon has zero necromantic powers, but, hey, she can grow her thumbs back when they get bitten off by Heralds, so that’s something.
While Harrow joins forces with a band of ghosts to destroy the Sleeper in the River, Gideon fights her way through the real-time Heralds, trades insults and threats with Ianthe, and arrives at the Emperor’s chambers in time to learn that (1) she is his daughter and (2) his Lyctors want him dead. Following his entirely unsuccessful assassination, subsequent resurrection, and battle with Augustine (he’s a busy guy), the Emperor is rescued at the last possible minute by Ianthe, who spirits him away to parts unknown while Gideon tries to abandon the sinking ship and possibly dies – or not. In a brief epilogue, we are introduced to Nona, the protagonist of the upcoming Nona the Ninth, who is currently under the care of Camilla Hect, a cavalier of the Sixth House.
Looking back at what I’ve written, I’ve realized how much I’ve omitted. That can’t entirely be helped, given the breadth of the story, but all the same it irks me. I have, for instance, neglected Palamedes Sextus, Master Warden and necromancer of the Sixth House, who was similarly forgotten during my review of Gideon the Ninth despite being one of my favorite characters. (Sorry, Pal.) Palamedes died shortly before the final battle in Gideon the Ninth, but he’s since set up a cozy little bubble for himself in the River, where he’s been rereading the same trashy romance over and over again for lack of anything better to do, and has started plotting its sequel on the walls of his room (because of course he has). I’ve left out Harrow’s frenzied attempts to construct any kind of universe in which she doesn’t have to deal with Gideon’s death – which, by the way, were fever-dream wonderful – and her grief when Abigail Pent (necromancer of the Fifth House) gently pulls her out of her little denialverse. I’ve left out Abigail Pent.
This is one instance in which the complexity of the world really works against the story as a whole, because the Locked Tomb books bombarded me with so much detailed necromantic theory and jargon that summarizing them succinctly and comprehensively is difficult. I am not good at following fantasy science, or real-life science either for that matter. The fact that I have persisted with these particular books should tell you something about the quality of the series, but I cannot pretend that the necromantic science is anything other than head-spinning, and it tends to make me forget things. (If you can follow it, good for you. I wish I were you.) The problem is that at a certain level of discourse, my brain automatically checks out, with the result that a lot of the planet-killing and River-related stuff got skimmed. I therefore cannot comment on the overall quality of the necromantic science discussed in either Gideon or Harrow, because I don’t really get it. I mean, it seems convincing? At the same time, though, it is a major contributing factor in the initial slowness of the story. I’m sorry, but I am a peasant. Take me back to Gideon. Show me Gideon bashing things with her sword and yelling creative slurs at people. That is literally all I want.
But I almost knew what you’d written already, so I don’t know why I was surprised.
One flesh, one end.
Which did not make me happy, Harrow. It did not fill my heart with soft and sentimental yearning. You set me up. You set all of it up. I gave you one damn job. And instead you rolled a rock over me and turned your back. I spent all that time drowning and surfacing in you, over and over and over, and all because in the end you could not bear to do the one thing I asked you to do.
I wanted you to use me, you malign, double-crossing, corpse-obsessed bag of bones, you broken, used-up shithead! I wanted you to live and not die, you imaginary-girlfriend-having asshole! Fuck one flesh, one end, Harrow. I already gave my flesh to you, and I already gave you my end. I gave you my sword. I gave you myself. I did it while knowing I’d do it all again, without hesitation, because all I ever wanted you to do was eat me.
Which is, coincidentally, what your mother said to me last night.
You see what I mean? And then, about two pages later:
“…I am a Lyctor…Harrow is a Lyctor…and the centuries will entangle us whether she wants them to or – Nav, if you persist in making jack-off motions when I am talking, I will show you what Harrow’s kidneys look like.”
“That! That’s what I’m talking about,” I said. “Don’t show me her kidneys. Don’t think about her kidneys. Don’t do anything with her goddamn kidneys. Get a grip. Don’t look at her blood, or lick her bones, or do any of the shit necromancers lie and say they don’t do the moment two of them get nasty.”
She shrugged that gold-skinned shoulder.
“What can I say,” she said. “I love a little gall on gall.”
“Reverse everything I just told you,” I said. “Let’s get married.”
Confusing pseudo-science aside, this is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back for more and more and more, because holy shit Muir can write. She pulls off stylized dialogue that technically shouldn’t really work in the context of a casual conversation and weaves it in with the raw, earthy banter typically produced by Gideon. The contrast isn’t jarring or off-putting; it’s effortless, and it works. It’s so good. Nor is Gideon limited to insults and innuendo; she is a fully realized character with a heart and a mind and a soul. Her banter doesn’t get old or annoying, because clearly it’s still making me laugh almost a year after I read the damn book; and yet, for all her goofiness, she is also capable of moments of such bitter poignancy.
Were you ten, Harrow? Was I eleven?
Was that the day you decided you wanted to die?
You remember how the fuck-off great-aunts always used to say, Suffer and learn?
If they were right, Nonagesimus, how much more can we take until you and me achieve omniscience?
I’ve read books that focused on one or two good characters while neglecting the rest of the cast, but this is absolutely not one of them. I love Muir’s characters, who are vivid, funny, and often quite rude without being obnoxious. Even though we don’t spend much time with them individually, the Canaan House crew are so distinctive that I have no trouble telling them all apart; likewise God and his surviving Lyctors. I love God’s general relationship with his adult Lyctors, though admittedly I do not love Mercymorn, who is shrill and annoying at the best of times. (Can’t have everything.) I do kind of wish that some of Mercymorn’s scenes/rants had been cut down or even just cut out, but it is what it is. She is slightly more tolerable in the audiobook, mainly because of the skill of the utterly irreplaceable Moira Quirk, who narrated Gideon and Harrow and is hopefully onboard for the rest of the series. I will cry if they try to get rid of her.
All this is to say that my level of anticipation for Nona the Ninth has shot up higher than the price of gas, and I’m spending all my time waiting for it to be September. I’m not sure who Nona is, but right now my assumption is that she is Alecto the Ninth, the Emperor’s cavalier and Harrow’s imaginary dead(ish) girlfriend, and that she has been reawoken in Harrow’s body as part of a strategy to combat the Emperor and the Nine Houses. We haven’t been to the Ninth House for a year, so it’s entirely possible that – given that Harrow has successfully opened the Locked Tomb, even if nobody believes her when she says she did, and given that Nona the Ninth was the first half of Alecto the Ninth before it got separated into its own book – Alecto either got loose on her own or was extracted while we were away. I’m trying not to speculate too wildly, because I tend to miss a lot of the finer details when I’m skimming and I’m often wrong. I’m also wondering if Nona’s body is housing Palamedes as well, given a tantalizing little hint in the epilogue, but, again, it doesn’t do to dwell on theories. All I know is that the book is coming out in September, and I can’t wait till it does.