Harrow the Ninth, Exhausted but not Dead

Harrow the Ninth, Exhausted but not Dead

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.

Black Sun: A Disciplined Triumph

Black Sun: A Disciplined Triumph

If I ever teach a course on writing a fantasy novel, I’m going to start with Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Black Sun’s world is new and unique, taking inspiration from histories and cultures that are painfully underrepresented in fantasy, and yet it’s completely approachable. The book is over four hundred pages and yet it flies by. Black Sun is a work of discipline. No word is ever wasted, Roanhorse doesn’t even use a ‘she said’ at the end of dialogue unless absolutely necessary. It’s just so—impressive.

Black Sun takes place in the Meridian, a world with its inspiration rooted in pre-Columbian Americas. It’s a rich, complex place with painful history, diverse myths, cultures and a whole lot of bubbling tension and yet the book is lacking anything approaching an info dump. I never felt like Roanhorse slowed down and laid it out for me and yet, I was never confused or felt like I was missing something.  It’s a touch that is light, yet deep. The book’s world merges with the story and just keeps moving.

And this book moves, of its many strengths pacing might be Black Sun’s strongest. I can see a younger Matt finishing this book off in a day or two. It’s chapters are quick, sliding from scene to scene, but not overwhelming. It still takes time to build its characters and deepen its conspiracies, but no chapter feels like filler, nothing switched on my editor brain, I was in the novel’s flow every time I picked it up.

The story at Black Sun’s core is simple, cutting between Serapio and Xiala’s journey to the city of Tova and Sun Priest Naranpa’s struggles in Tova trying to keep the metropolis together and order in the ranks of the Watchers. Xiala was my favorite character. She’s somehow both a roguish captain, drinking and sleeping her way through the Meridian and yet, the most practical person in the book. Naranpa was painfully relatable and her chapters were where the most intrigue happened and Serapio…well, the less I give away about Serapio the best.

I will say that Serapio is another triumph. His visage is striking, and a lot of writers would make him into some unstoppable badass, heightening his frightening elements and mystery. Roanhorse though, does a lot with the character and makes one of the most human mystery boxes I’ve bumped into. Whatever else Serapio might be, he’s always a person first.

I will say for all of my love of Black Sun if felt like a first step rather than a complete novel. This too though, feels like an act of discipline on Roanhorse’s part as the book is the first in a planned trilogy. It’s a firm first step that does a solid job of setting up it’s world, it’s characters and it’s conflict. It hits it’s climax like it says it will and then ends in a moment that felt sweet and right and left me eager for more.  

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy and Sci-fi often get lumped together, and while there’s a lot of cross over between the two genres, both in terms readers and concepts, there is one vital difference. Sci-fi is representation of how we think of the future, while fantasy is often about how we view the past.

Fantasy novels are clearly not history books or even historical fiction (though they do share some DNA). Fantasy isn’t a verbatim retelling of past events, but rather seeks to capture the overall ‘feel of the past’, that’s why so many have magic and fantastical creatures, those things feel realer, or were believed to be realer, in pre-modern times. And while magic and fantastic beasts appear in almost every fantasy novel, they are not the defining element of those worlds. The setting of a fantasy novel is not so much a magical place, but an old one.

One of the reasons Game of Thrones became so popular was that people thought it was a more ‘realistic’ fantasy story. Most of its seasons don’t deal with magic at all, but rather brutal medieval combat and court intrigue. It shows a Hobbesian past where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In part we watch it because of all the nastiness, it intrigues us even though we wouldn’t want to live through it ourselves. It’s a past that we’re grateful to have move beyond.

In contrast Tolkien envisioned a gentler past, his hobbits live simple, pleasant lives, suffering only village gossip and British passive-aggressiveness. War comes, and it is brutal and requires sacrifice, but the lines are clearly drawn: good and evil. The enemy are literal inhuman creations, spurred on by an evil god. Men are mythical heroes, taller and stronger than the simple hobbits who themselves have more in common with the reader than the mankind of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s past is both idyllic and epic, it’s something we feel we’ve lost.

Both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings speak to the way we view history rather than to any particular period of history itself. And while it’s true that both Middle Earth and Westros invoke some of the more exciting elements of Medieval Britain: knights in full plate, maidens in long gowns, the remnants of a more advance people (the Romans), barbarian invaders, etc. They have as much to do with actual Medieval Britain as Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angles has to do with modern LA.

Outside of the hobbits, dragons and white walkers Medieval Britain also didn’t have taverns, smoking pipes, sewers, full plate armor (until the very end), banks, or large population centers. Medieval combat rarely involved pitched battles on the field and was mostly castle sieges. Trial by combat was exceedingly rare.

Tolkien’s Hobbits have a lot more in common with 18th and early 19th century British farmers than they do with Medieval peasants. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has Norse style Northmen raiders, but they’re duking it out with Union soldiers who use fencing foils, a technology appearing more than five hundred years after the Vikings. Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron series takes place in a world of knights and a tyrannical church, but also has early 19th century style ships, with sailors that would have fit in during the Napoleonic wars.

The British Empire itself looms large in most of our Fantasy. The attitudes, manner of speaking and social economics of a great deal of supposedly medieval fantasy worlds instead come from late 19th, and early 20th century Britain. Medieval Britain was poor and splintered, with dozens of ethnic groups and a ruling caste that considered itself more French, or Norman at least, than English. The arrogant western like kingdoms in fantasy who refer to other people as savages and who think of themselves as more advance come from our living memory not our distance past.

None of this is to belittle or attack these works, I’ve enjoyed every series I mentioned here. None of these writers are trying to create a historical place. Their worlds are constructed from a hodgepodge of myth, different historical periods, and imagination. But all of them are trying to conjure the past and when they do so they are speaking to our comprehension of it. The use of so much British empire in our fantasy works shows the impact that the British empire has had on us and how we distinguish our modern selves as people distinctly different than the Imperialist of old.

And as the fantasy genre has spread out it has begun to leave behind both the trappings of Medieval Europe and the attitudes of the British Empire. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series takes its inspiration from early Chinese history (as well as the Odyssey, and the Vikings again). S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon both focus on myth and history from the Muslim world, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti brings in influence from African history and culture. The expansion of Fantasy genre is an expansion of our understanding of the past, of who’s past has value, and who’s past deserves to be mythologized and critiqued.

As we grow, becoming more multi-culture our fantasy will as well. The genre will ask us to explore new pasts, new combinations, new understandings of where we come from, who we are and who we are not. The past might be the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.

Kings of The Wyld and Bloody Rose: The Band Series Rocks

Kings of The Wyld and Bloody Rose: The Band Series Rocks

On a whim I picked up Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld and loved it. I devoured the book in under a week and immediately dove into its sequel Bloody Rose. It’s a good book, on par with Kings of the Wyld, but different in some meaningful ways. What really makes Bloody Rose impressive though, is how it improves and complicates the world that Eames introduces in Kings of the Wyld. Two books in and Eames’s Band series is already a roadmap for any writer looking to make a one and done story into an entertaining series.

In Kings of the Wyld mercenaries in the style of D&D adventurers, right down to classes like warriors, thieves and wizards, gather in ‘bands’ that have a distinct rock and roll vibe to them. (Sidebar, fantasy needs a new sub-genre for stories that are purposely playing with D&D and video games tropes, I’m thinking RPG-Fantasy? Something catchier?) The merging of rock and roll with epic fantasy drives the lion’s-share of the world building. There’s arena shows, bookers that get mercenaries gigs, when mercenaries head into the dangerous Heartwyld to go adventuring it’s called ‘touring’. There’s a big festival called the ‘War Fair’ where bands get drunk and party; you get it.

The story focuses on Saga, the greatest band of all time. Saga broke up decades ago and Golden Gabe, the band’s ‘Front-man’, needs to get the band back together for one last tour. He has to save his daughter who is trapped on the other side of the dangerous Heartwyld in a city under siege by a horde of monsters. It’s a compelling plot and Eames runs with it, combining his aging adventures with aging rockers to create a hilarious, bad ass adventure.

But the adventure ends. Rose is saved, there’s some foreshadowing of greater threats, but everything is neatly taken care and honestly, how long can you really stretch the whole ‘D&D characters are rock stars thing?’ Saga is a fun crew, but they’re also old and have other responsibilities. Can you really force the band back together for two more books? Wouldn’t you lose what made the first one so special if Clay Cooper had to leave his family behind two more times to save the world?

Eames smartly decides to leave Clay and the rest of Saga home for the sequel. Instead he focuses on a new band, ‘Fable’, led by Gabe’s daughter Rose. And he makes the ‘bard’, a joke role in his first book, into the lead for his second. Fable’s prospective character is Tam, a seventeen-year-old girl and huge Fable fan. While Tam is likable and pragmatic like Clay Cooper, the perspective character in Eames’s first book, she’s coming from a very different place and that allows us to see Eames’s world in a different light.

But it’s not just Tam, Eames smooths out the rough edges of his world building in the second book. Mercenaries are still rock and rollers, there’s still arena fights and even groupies and tour followers. Fable still gets drunk, has crazy sex and does drugs. But the rock and roll stuff fits neater into the world this time, it feels less like a clever joke and more like a thing of consequence.

There’s a seedy underbelly to the arena shows and the treatment of ‘monsters’. Eames grazes this in his first book, but really explores it in his second. Fable’s booker is a monster, they stay the night at Tree Ent’s place, there’s a much more complex situation going on. Tam starts to see the mercenary bands she idolized in a different light. In this way Eames leaves behind the rock and roll stuff when it doesn’t suit the world building and makes the connections when it does. This gives Bloody Rose a less manic and more disciplined vibe.

That’s not to say the world isn’t still a blast, full of crazy, weirdos and funny situations. There’s a Shaman that accidentally turns into a bear cub, a satyr that eats everything like a goat, a guy living with monsters who ties an extra pair of felt arms to himself to blend in. Moog, the impish wizard from the first book, shows up again to delight. It’s fun, but the world feels more introspective.

Part of that is the crew. Fable is younger and more damaged than Saga. Don’t get me wrong, Saga had its problems and arcs. I also absolutely loved Clay and his bandmates. But they were more established, their issues played for jokes at time. Rose and her team are younger and there is an insecurity to them that feels real.

Eames is more interested in exploring these characters than his world, but that’s for the better. He does good character work and while there is a touch of cliché to everyone in both Fable and Saga, they both raise above their tropes and become so endearing it’s hard to let them go by the end.

And let them go you must. Eames has a three book deal, but he says that each book will focus on a different band. While I’m sad to see Tam and her friends depart, I can’t wait to see how Eames’s world will continues to evolve. I also have no doubt that I will grow to love his final band as much as I loved the first two. If you’re looking for a fun fantasy world that isn’t afraid to grow and question its own conceits, then check out Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose