Picking up a sequel to a book as original as Gideon the Ninth is a little scary—the first book set an incredibly high bar. Tamsyn Muir’s second novel, Harrow the Ninth, thankfully, clears it with room to spare. Returning to that preposterous but somehow organic blend of black magic and science fiction, Harrow the Ninth is a gleeful, genre-bending romp, sliding effortlessly between different modes of horror, and is relentlessly funny without ever dropping its core seriousness. Muir has once again distilled several variations on “frenemy” to fuel a compelling cast, and the novel’s pacing is amazingly controlled given how chaotic the story is—like a building deliberately falling down.
The premise of Gideon was so inventive and unhinged that half the pleasure of the book was just watching Muir pull it off—a space opera about wizards, veering constantly into mystery and horror, seen through the eyes of caustically sarcastic teenagers. In Harrow, she takes that wild mash-up and expands on it, while making the reader doubt everything they remember about the first book. Harrow herself is a necromancer, more magically and politically astute than Gideon, so we get a lot more about how the world works—but, as a novel, Harrow is an intricate and deceptive piece of work, refusing a straightforward approach to its outlandish story.
The novel picks up right where the last one left off: Harrowhark, newly ascended to the powerful rank of Lyctor, has joined the God-emperor of the Nine Houses to fight his enemies, corporeal and otherworldly. In the main storyline, Harrow meets the other Lyctors and begins to learn her new powers as they prepare for a terrible battle. These chapters are interspersed with what seem to be flashbacks to the events of the previous novel, but these memories soon diverge more drastically than can be explained by a simple difference in perspective.
Very quickly, it’s clear we’ve been plunged into a horror story more psychological than it first appeared. Harrow claims to have wrestled with delusional insanity since childhood, and we’re in a world in which neurosurgery, magic, and ghostly possession have all come into play. She is left trying to piece together the true story as reality constantly shifts underfoot, and as a much larger galactic story plays out largely uncaring of her mystery—the metaphysical uncertainty of Inception or a Hitchcock thriller, on top of an already-complex and fantastic plot. It’s deliberately, satisfyingly confusing, and really rewarding when the pieces start to click into place. Muir is masterful at deploying bold changes in voice and tone to underscore this approach, with an unusually effective use of second person for large sections of the book; several distinct species of snarkiness differentiate her main characters and narrators.
Muir uses this ambitious, convoluted structure, not as an end in itself, but as a sneaky way to build on the fantastic premises of her debut. For just one example, Harrow takes an apparent weakness of Gideon’s—the over-large cast—and flips it on its head. Almost every character that got short shrift (or, you know, murdered) gets their time in the limelight here, as Harrow relives the events of the previous book through an increasingly kaleidoscopic lens. Characters who were barely more than than caricatures and conveniences in the original—particularly long-suffering Ortus with his “thick, porridgy sadness” and kindly genius Abigail Pent, both killed off-screen with hardly a line of dialog each—are here given some real agency, and some delightful scenes.
Delight is a key virtue of the novel—despite its effective horror, its grim world and gory action, Harrow is a fun, even joyful read. Muir pushes the grotesqueness of her language until body horror shades into comedy—soup is slurped with “a sound like custard going down a flute”, Harrow thinks of Ortus as “a walk-around man suit surrounding some quite good calcium carbonate”, and there are just blood and bones everywhere. Much like its predecessor, Harrow the Ninth is steeped in puns and snappy dialog, tonal juxtapositions, and sly pop culture references. Nothing hinges on catching the references—the book won’t suffer for the reader missing them—but the specificity of these jokes had me spitting coffee, from niche Twitter call-outs like “jail for mother” to Eminem lyrics, even a delicate poke at “coffee shop alternate universes” (a venerable fannish tradition) as Harrow’s flashbacks shade to fantasies.
Gideon’s humor was intentionally sophomoric, while Harrow has a more reserved and cutting wit. That’s put to good use here, with Muir’s remarkable talent for quickly painting characters who don’t get along very well but are extremely enjoyable to watch snipe at each other. The entire cast—old and new—feel distinct. The book captures that strange feeling of joining a long-established group with their own hard-to-summarize histories and complex feelings towards each other. It’s still great to see a work of genre science fiction so casually queer, casually lesbian—though it feels strange to praise a novel with roughly equal rates of mostly-failed seduction and half-successful murder, to say nothing of the monstrous ghosts and aliens, as casually anything. I’m most impressed by how Harrow centers non-romantic relationships—trust, loyalty, friendship—even as they are entangled with animosity or sexual attraction, or as characters try to separate their personal feelings from ethical and political decisions. And, despite its cavalier attitude to death, to un- and after-life, Harrow is sharply fixated on loss, on separation, on grief.
We’ve spent most of the series thus far cooped up with a handful of knights and wizards, and only the occasional reminder that we’re in a galactic space saga. Harrow the Ninth offers us a few glimpses of the wider setting and, in the epilogue, pulls the curtain back significantly, without quite letting us know what we’re seeing. I’m hopeful that Harrow’s ending hints at the possibility of more diverse and critical viewpoints to come—in a world in which entire planets and populations have been intentionally destroyed and intentionally resurrected, I think we need to know why every single character is white, why everyone speaks the same language. The basic shape and history of this universe is still mostly unknown to us—Muir has thus far steadfastly avoided any simple expositional info-dumps—but it seems like she’s setting up for a sequel that will explore the larger world.
This novel, though, doesn’t suffer from not getting that big-picture treatment: it excels in extremely close descriptions. Despite the fantastic setting, the way the novel revolves around bodily detail and reality makes everything Harrow is going through feel concrete, lived-in; it draws strange connections between how both violence and emotion work on us physically. Delivering on everything that made Gideon such a scene-stealing debut, Harrow the Ninth adds an astonishing depth of feeling and a perfectly-constructed puzzle box of a plot.
Harrow the Ninth
By Tamsyn Muir
Published August 4, 2020
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.