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.  

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

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

I’ve been listening to the audio-books of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle recently. The books have something of a ‘geek cool’ rep to them. When they first came out everyone from my favorite web comic to the dorm DM were gushing about them. And even close to ten years later I bump into people at writing groups, cons and parties that talk about The Kingkiller Chronicle the same way hipsters talk about obscure EPs.

Yet despite the rep and the fact that the book stars a fellow ginger, I simply couldn’t make it through the first one, The Name of the Wind. Even the audio book with its excellent narration was painful, I would find myself shouting at Kvothe to ‘Get on with it already!’ (My favorite parts were when Kvothe, after doing this rambling, overly clever description, say something like ‘but I’ll spare you the details.’ I would always mutter ‘thanks? But why this time? You certainly didn’t spare them anywhere else!?). The Kingkiller Chronicle is supposed to be a story told over the course of three days, but honestly Kvothe is such a blowhard that it feels like it takes three months.

The Kingkiller Chronicle has a novel framing story. Chronicler, a famous scholar and scribe, hunts down the legendary figure of Kvothe who is in retirement and running an inn with his otherworldly apprentice Bast. Kvothe agrees to tell Chronicler his whole story and help separate what is legend from what is truth. From there the majority of the novels are in first person with Kvothe telling his story, with interludes in the ‘present’ at the Waystone Inn.

Kvothe can be a trying storyteller. He often feels like someone’s overly designed RPG character. He’s a master musician, wizard (though magic doesn’t exist in this world! Though it also totally does), swordsmen and thief. He’s smart, cunning, handsome. He’s a mythical figure that everyone knows about, with thousand of tales that have been repeated over and over again all around the civilized world…and he’s also like under thirty, maybe not even twenty-five.

I’ve always found instant, ultra-competent characters annoying, even more so when they are ultra-competent teenagers, which Kvothe is for the first two books. On top of that he’s melodramatic and tragic when we meet him in ‘the present’ at the Waystone Inn. And none of his tragedy or his skill feels earned when he’s introduced. We’re told Kvothe’s a tragic legendary hero, not shown it. But that’s fine, because Kvothe is going to tell us his story and the truth behind his amazing legacy that everyone can’t stop talking about, the one he even quotes in detail as he begins his tale….

Expect he doesn’t.

The Kingkiller Chronicle’s true sin is one of pacing and pay off. Every event in Kvothe’s life seems to require a hundred pages of in depth detail to get through, even when they’re not that interesting, like the time Kvothe wandered around a fucking woods for months just feeling sad. By the time the first book ends, Kvothe has maybe done one or two things of note and none of the things he specifically talks about when he begins his tale. The second book is more interesting, but it’s still stuffed to the brim with words.

I don’t know how many times Kvothe talks about going over to Eolian to play music, or how many cute but platonic interactions he has with his love interest Denna, or how many times he talks about longing to play the fucking lute, but there are just strenuous pages of this stuff that builds to almost nothing. As someone who has also wrote a five hundred page fantasy novel that I’m sure seems like it goes on forever (Find out more here!), I have a hard time begrudging Rothfuss some of these asides. And I will admit the more I listened, the more I enjoyed Kvothe’s story, mostly because interesting things started happening in the second book, but it is still overrun with chaff.

At the end of one of Kvothe’s episodes (the story is at times very episodic), Kvothe stumbles upon Felurian. Felurian is a Faye creature and is equal parts seductive and frightening. Kvothe ends up in a dual of sorts with her and tricks her in a very folklore- style way. It works, and it’s over pretty quickly and I thought Rothfuss was finally picking up the pace. But then Kvothe stays in the Faye with Felurian for what feels like forever. Pages are spent taking about how he learned to kiss from her and how they wandered around naked. It stretches and stretches, finally something interesting happens again, but rather than having that propel Kvothe to his next adventure he spends some more time with Felurian recovering from the event. Chaff like this swipes the momentum of the story out at the knees.

Rothfuss writing often feels more indulgent than engaging, as if he left too many darlings alive on the page. But even so, I’m listening. I will download the next book whenever it’s finally released. The novel is frustrating because it has potential, not because it’s bad. Kvothe can be clever, some of the details of his world interesting. But Kvoethe should have learned more from those quiet Adem mercenaries than just fighting. As his friend Tempi said, ‘one word can say more than many’.