Book Review: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House, has been drafted by her Emperor to fight an unwinnable war. Side-by-side with a detested rival, Harrow must perfect her skills and become an angel of undeath — but her health is failing, her sword makes her nauseous, and even her mind is threatening to betray her.

Sealed in the gothic gloom of the Emperor’s Mithraeum with three unfriendly teachers, hunted by the mad ghost of a murdered planet, Harrow must confront two unwelcome questions: is somebody trying to kill her? And if they succeeded, would the universe be better off?

Can Tamsyn Muir match the anarchic fun of her debut Gideon the Ninth? Can she expand her universe of necromancy and interstellar travel outside of the ruins of Canaan House where that first novel is (mainly) located? Can she convincingly present a God of Death, the Emperor Undying on the page? Can she reach the same heights of carnage, bones, the oh-so-many skeletons, the swordplay, the visceral horror?

Short answer, yes! Slightly longer addendum, but not at all in the way that you might expect!

For one thing, Gideon is dead and her point of view and voice was sorely missed. And voice was the first unsettling things you are hit with on the first page, the very first word. A second person narrative. Second person?

YOUR ROOM HAD LONG AGO plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving no distraction from the great rocking thump—thump—thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull. There was nothing to see—the shutters were down—but you could feel the terrible vibration, hear the groan of chitin on metal, the cataclysmic rending of steel by fungous claw.

The novel broadly follows the chronology of Harrow’s training as a Lyctor, an immortal necromantic Saint of Death, capable of killing entire planets at a time. A training that takes place at the hands of the Lord Emperor’s surviving Lyctors, Mercymorn and Augustine. A third Lyctor, Ortus (Ortus?) joins them with the news that a Resurrection Beast – the aeons-old ghost of a dead planet bent on violent revenge – is pursuing them and they prepare to face it. And there are awkward dinner parties, repeated and brutally visceral attempts by Ortus (Ortus?) to murder Harrow, visitations by Cytherea’s reanimated corpse reclaimed from the ruins of Canaan House with Harrow.

Alongside this, slipping back into a limited third person point of view from Harrow’s perspective, we – bizarrely – re-enact the events of Gideon the Ninth as if Ortus were taken as her cavalier to Canaan House, instead of being murdered on a shuttle to allow Gideon to take his place. And as if the antagonist were not Cytherea, the mad Lyctor of that first novel, but a mysterious sleeper in a coffin. And, as with many readers, my first reaction was What the Hell?!

But please bear with it!

It works – it really does – although it takes a while to reach the point where it does. Just accept the ride and give in to it, give Muir your trust, and it will be repaid in spades.

If anything there is even more violence and body horror and gore splattering these pages than in the first novel – and I say that as a reader for whom that would normally be either offputting or tedious! But Muir manages it with style and humour – Harrow’s homecooked stew was both gross and hilarious in its over-the-top imagery!

“What’s the meat in here flavouring the broth? If there’s chunks, it’s all rendered down.”

You closed your eyes and tried to think. It was so difficult. You so badly wanted to sleep. You were doing so many things at once—your sole remaining powers of concentration were given over to this moment. For a second or two you forgot the word that you were looking for—it was on the tip of your tongue—while you were building, minutely, stromal cell by stromal cell.

“Marrow,” you said.

The Saint of Duty exploded outward as your construct emerged from his abdomen.

More information comes out here about The Locked Tomb, and about Gideon’s mother as Muir expands her mythology and universe, but so many strands remain tantalisingly vague – and the conclusion leaves both Gideon and Harrow in limbo – that the next in the series cannot come too soon.

What I Liked

  • Oh my god, that sword fight in ‘Canaan House’ with the sleeper – damn, Muir knows how to write a sword fight!
  • The Emperor: the Lord Undying, “the God who became man, and the man who became God, the Necrolord Prime who may resurrect a galaxy with a gesture” who is presented mainly as a middle manager, tapping on a tablet and negotiating meetings about meetings. Until his power is made manifest. When it is terrifying.
  • Ortus the Ninth, Harrow’s ‘cavalier’ – never thought I’d cite him here when we first met him in the opening sections, but I grew to love him!
  • The growing back of Ianthe’s arm bone, which was magnificent and nauseating in equal measure.
  • Gideon’s return – long, long awaited but so joyous when it happened.

What Could Have Been Different

  • The novel does feel a little – significantly more than a little – bloated: it takes a very long time to reach the Mithraeum, and we spend a very long time on the Mithraeum before things comes to a head.

Overall:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Page Count:

512 pages

Publisher:

Tor.com

Date:

4th August 2020

Available:

Amazon, Publisher

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