Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is the Metal Gear Solid 2 of necromantic space operas; a divisive sequel to a genre defining smash hit that swaps protagonists, suffers from the creator’s own indulgences and spends way too much time retreading its predecessor. It’s not a bad book, but it left me with mixed feelings about going into Alecto the Ninth.
Gideon the Ninth hit as hard as one of Gideon’s own swings when it was published in 2019. It was a strong debut with a fascinating world, a quippy, irreverent protagonist and some of the most beautiful and twisty descriptions of bones in the English language. Gideon ended with a wider world opening for Harrow and some questions I was dying to have answered, what I got in Harrow was—something.
Harrow starts where Gideon left off, save that not only has it switched protagonists but it’s also switched narration from third person to second. There’s a reason for the switch and it’s not the whole book. Half the book takes place in the ‘present’ in second, with the other half in third person and takes place in…well, it’s hard to explain. It’s all kind of grating, but the third person sections are the worse.
The third person sections of the book are a retelling of the plot of Gideon the Ninth, except it’s not; things are different. I had a real hard time caring about these sections, which, once again, take up half the book. They lead somewhere, it’s confusing and the fate of the characters in it haven’t changed from Gideon. The stuff in the present is more interesting, save it’s also kind of exactly like Gideon the Ninth. Harrow spends a brief amount of time with the Emperor and the other Lyctors before they’re all shuttled off to an isolated space station, to hang out, be difficult/quirky, discover mysteries and get into fights with each other.
There are hints of terrible sacrifices, ancient mysteries and some truly cool space fantasy shit, like the Locked Tomb and Resurrection Beats. Harrow is much the same as she was in Gideon, haughty, anxious, powerful and damaged. She was a fine protagonist to follow around, but she can’t handle some of Muir’s more indulgent quirks.
Muir’s stuffs her novels with internet humor and sensibilities. These moments weren’t too jarring when coming from Gideon, who was irreverent herself, but coming from Harrow they are groan worthy and absolutely unnecessary. I almost threw the book against the wall when Harrow discovers the fucking Stussy S, the one everyone drew in middle school.
I even began to find myself tiring of Muir’s writing which is both incredible and way, way too much. Muir doesn’t describe characters, she describes gardens. All the Lyctors are painted in such lush words that they become obscured, fading into vibrant colors rather than physical attributes. There was a line about some buff dude towards the end of the book. It was supposed to be a reference to one of the Lyctors but I never got that he was muscled at all. I ended up flipping back and rereading his introduction a couple of times to make sure I had the right character.
The dialogue too began to overwhelm me. The difference between clever writing and ‘aren’t I clever’ writing isn’t wit, it’s excess and Muir almost always goes for excess. Her dialogue is a lot of sniping, full of British style ‘owns’, where characters say something cutting without coming out and saying something cutting. The worse offender was Mercymorn, who was just exhausting.
The indulgences and switching between narration and time, mar a plot that’s not really there. Harrow has common second book problems. It needs to exist to set up the third book, but is really a bridge with not much going on. Muir is also content to pile confusion and mystery on top of everything, leading to an ending which the reader has no context for and will only, maybe, make sense after Alecto the Ninth comes out.
After I finished Harrow I was tired. I wanted to like it. There is strong writing and engaging worlds and characters in these books, but they feel trapped in Muir’s own excessive mire, bogged down by irrelevance and her amusements. I don’t know if I have it in me to wrestle with another book, but for the sake of Harrow and Gideon, I’ll probably give it a shot.