Review: Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Russ Allbery eagle at
Wed Sep 30 20:57:51 PDT 2020

Harrow the Ninth
by Tamsyn Muir

Series:    The Locked Tomb #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2020
ISBN:      1-250-31320-1
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     510

Harrow the Ninth is a direct sequel to Gideon the Ninth and under
absolutely no circumstances should you start reading here. You would be
so lost. If you plan on reading this series, read the books as closely
together as you can so that you can remember the details of the
previous book. You may still resort to re-reading or searching through
parts of the previous book as you go.

Muir is doing some complex structural work with Harrow the Ninth, so
it's hard to know how much to say about it without spoiling some aspect
of it for someone. I think it's safe to say this much: As advertised by
the title, we do get a protagonist switch to Harrowhark. However,
unlike Gideon the Ninth, it's not a single linear story. The storyline
that picks up after the conclusion of Gideon is interwoven with
apparent flashbacks retelling the story of the previous book from
Harrowhark's perspective. Or at least it might have been the story of
the previous book, except that Ortus is Harrowhark's cavalier, Gideon
does not appear, and other divergences from the story we previously
read become obvious early on.

(You can see why memory of Gideon the Ninth is important.)

Oh, and one of those storylines is written in the second person. Unlike
some books that use this as a gimmick, this is for reasons that are
eventually justified and partly explained in the story, but it's
another example of the narrative complexity. Harrow the Ninth is
dropping a lot of clues (and later revelations) in both story events
and story structure, many of which are likely to upend reader
expectations from the first book.

I have rarely read a novel that is this good at fulfilling the tricky
role of the second book of a trilogy. Gideon the Ninth was, at least on
the surface, a highly entertaining, linear, and relatively
straightforward escape room mystery, set against a dying-world SF
background that was more hinted at than fleshed out. Harrow the Ninth
revisits and reinterprets that book in ways that add significant depth
without feeling artificial. Bits of scenery in the first book take on
new meaning and intention. Characters we saw only in passing get a much
larger role (and Abigail is worth the wait). And we get a whole ton of
answers: about the God Emperor, about Lyctors, about the world, about
Gideon and Harrowhark's own pasts and backgrounds, and about the locked
tomb that is at the center of the Ninth House. But there is still more
than enough for a third book, including a truly intriguing triple
cliffhanger ending. Harrow the Ninth is both satisfying in its own
right and raises new questions that I'm desperate to see answered in
the third book.

Also, to respond to my earlier self on setting, this world is not a
Warhammer 40K universe, no matter how much it may have appeared in the
glimpses we got in Gideon. The God Emperor appears directly in this
book and was not at all what I was expecting, if perhaps even more
disturbing. Muir is intentionally playing against type, drawing a sharp
contrast between the God Emperor and the dramatic goth feel of the rest
of the universe and many of the characters, and it's creepily effective
and goes in a much different ethical direction than I had thought.
(That said, I will warn that properly untangling the ethical dilemmas
of this universe is clearly left to the third book.)

I mentioned in my review of Gideon the Ninth that I was happily to see
more SF pulling unapologetically from fanfic. I'm going to keep beating
that drum in this review in part because I think the influence may be
less obvious to the uninitiated. Harrow the Ninth is playing with
voice, structure, memory, and chronology in ways that I suspect the
average reader unfamiliar with fanfic may associate more with literary
fiction, but they would be wrongly underestimating fanfic if they did
so. If anything, the callouts to fanfic are even clearer. There are
three classic fanfic alternate universe premises that appear in
passing, the story relies on the reader's ability to hold a canonical
narrative and an alternate narrative in mind simultaneously, and the
genre inspiration was obvious enough to me that about halfway through
the novel I correctly guessed one of the fanfic universes in which Muir
has written. (I'm not naming it here since I think it's a bit of a

And of course there's the irreverence. There are some structural
reasons why the narrative voice isn't quite as good as Gideon the Ninth
at the start, but rest assured that Muir makes up for that by the end
of the book. My favorite scenes in the series so far happen at the end
of Harrow the Ninth: world-building, revelations, crunchy metaphysics,
and irreverent snark all woven beautifully together. Muir has her
characters use Internet meme references like teenagers, which is a
beautiful bit of characterization because they are teenagers. In a
world that's heavy on viscera, skeletons, death, and horrific monsters,
it's a much needed contrast and a central part of how the characters
show defiance and courage. I don't think this will work for everyone,
but it very much works for me. There's a Twitter meme reference late in
the book that had me laughing out loud in delight.

Harrow the Ninth is an almost perfect second book, in that if you liked
Gideon the Ninth, you will probably love Harrow the Ninth and it will
make you like Gideon the Ninth even more. It does have one major flaw,
though: pacing.

This was also my major complaint about Gideon, primarily around the
ending. I think Harrow the Ninth is a bit better, but the problem has a
different shape. The start of the book is a strong "what the hell is
going on" experience, which is very effective, and the revelations are
worth the build-up once they start happening. In between, though, the
story drags on a bit too long. Harrow is sick and nauseated at the
start of the book for rather longer than I wanted to read about, there
is one too many Lyctor banquets than I think were necessary to
establish the characters, and I think there's a touch too much
wandering the halls.

Muir also interwove two narrative threads and tried to bring them to a
conclusion at the same time, but I think she had more material for one
than the other. There are moments near the end of the book where one
thread is producing all the payoff revelations the reader has been
waiting for, and the other thread is following another interminable and
rather uninteresting fight scene. You don't want your reader saying
"argh, no" each time you cut away to the other scene. It's better than
Gideon the Ninth, where the last fifth of the book is mostly a running
battle that went on way longer than it needed to, but I still wish Muir
had tightened the story throughout and balanced the two threads so that
we could stay with the most interesting one when it mattered.

That said, I mostly noticed the pacing issues in retrospect and in
talking about them with a friend who was more annoyed than I was. In
the moment, there was so much going on here, so many new things to
think about, and so much added depth that I devoured Harrow the Ninth
over the course of two days and then spent the next day talking to
other people who had read it, trading theories about what happened and
what will happen in the third book. It was the most enjoyable reading
experience I've had so far this year.

Gideon the Ninth was fun; Harrow the Ninth was both fun and on the
verge of turning this series into something truly great. I can hardly
wait for Alecto the Ninth (which doesn't yet have a release date,

As with Gideon the Ninth, content warning for lots and lots of gore,
rather too detailed descriptions of people's skeletons, restructuring
bits of the body that shouldn't be restructured, and more about bone
than you ever wanted to know.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-09-30


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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