2021 Hugo Award Review: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

A figure walks forward dressed in skeletal attire and mask, with skeletons behind them

Young necromancer Harrowhark, the secondary lead in Tamsyn Muir’s earlier novel Gideon the Ninth, now has the rank of Lyctor. This role involves travelling with an interplanetary God-Emperor between worlds and using her abilities as a necromancer to navigate the various hazards thrown in her way. After all, this is a universe where vast monsters travel through space, draining the life-force of entire planets: there is no shortage of hazards.

During her travels, it becomes clear that something very strange is happening — strange even in the context of a universe with teenage necromancers and planet-draining beasts. Some of Harrow’s memories are lost, while others appear to have become corrupted or distorted. Before long both Harrow and the reader are forced to try and re-assemble the truth from enigmatic fragments: Harrow’s notes to herself that she has no memory of writing, and flashbacks that may not be flashbacks at all.

the cover to Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Harrow the Ninth does not depart far from its predecessor in terms of setting. This is the same universe of interplanetary necromancy, where magical forces are detailed in such precise terms that the series should really have spun off into an RPG by now.

“Thalergetic decay causes cellular death,” you said carefully, pressing the nail in harder, “which emits thanergy. The massive cell death that follows apopneumatism causes a thanergetic cascade, though the first bloom fades and the thanergy stabilises within thirty to sixty seconds.”
“What happens to the soul?”
“In the case of gradual death—senescence, illness… certain other forms—transition is automatic and straightforward. The soul is pulled into the River by liminal osmosis. In cases of apopneumatic shock, where death is sudden and violent, the energy burst can be sufficient to countermand osmotic pressure and leave the soul temporarily isolated. Whence we gain the ghost, and the revenant.”

Gideon the Ninth, in telling the story of teenage necromancers captured both the angst of the characters’ age set the sense of best-days-of-your-life giddiness. A strain of quippy humour ran through it: while a sarcastic put-down might not have solved every problem, it would at least provide a little satisfaction. Harrow the Ninth is different. School is over: now it is time for Harrowhark to get a proper job, taking on both the responsibilities and the anxiety that come with it — and considering that her schooldays involved a murder mystery, those are anxieties indeed.

This is a story haunted by past trauma. The first book included the revelation that Harrowhark was created by a necromantic ritual that involved her parents slaughtering two hundred children — a brutal twist, but one at least confined to a secondary character. By making Harrowhark the main character, this sequel plunges the reader directly into the emotional weight that she carries as she sets off alongside the Emperor. Her feelings are complicated, guilt mingling with motivation: we are told that she “had always so badly wanted to live” because she “had cost too much to die.”

None of this is to say that the novel lacks humour. Indeed, the original novel’s sass is present and correct: “Sitting in a room with those paintings was like having a long visit with someone who kept laughing at their own puns”. But this time, the humour has a tremor of uncertainty that is rather stronger than before, largely lacking the seen-it-all-before confidence that this sort of snark thrives upon. The novel deliberately keeps the reader on edge by framing certain chapters in second person:

Your eyes slid back up to the ceiling. The water, oleaginous and warming, was thick now with the flotsam and jetsam of bits of corpse. When something bumped your foot, you flinched and grasped a fine fleck of bone from your tibia, tried to work it through your skin to ice over your feet. It didn’t precisely succeed. Instead of a fine outer needle of matter, you pulled a wet plug from just above the epiphyseal line, and your shinbone opened like a flower; your blood and cellular matter opened up on your rainbow robe and floated upward, and God turned around, and his face was indistinct in the murk but his voice was not—
“Oh—” He used a word you did not understand. “Harrowhark, no theorems!”

Harrow the Ninth is also a story of mystery and puzzle-solving, but where the mysteries of Gideon the Ninth were relatively closed-off — involving locked rooms and personal secrets — the puzzles in Harrow are more externalised, dealing with the nature of the reality surrounding the main character. A major example is the character of Ortus Condescending, sometimes ludicrous (“‘Pray only that my bones be one day interred in the Anastasian monument, where even the ghost of the light does not go,’ said Ortus, in front of everybody, like an absolute shit”)
and a general disappointment to Harrow. Yet he is also something of a tragic figure, as he is established early on to have died before being subsequently developed in flashbacks. His tragedy becomes a mystery, as he is inserted into flashbacks depicting events in the first novel, sometimes taking the place of old protagonist Gideon in Harrow’s recollection.

Tying in with the story’s usage of dark secrets is the theme of disillusionment, with cast members repeatedly turning out to be quite different from whatever facades they have erected. This element is embodied by the Emperor, who is typically referred to as “God” — which is how Harrow sees him — but, as the reader will be able to see, is distinctly mortal. Another example is found during a flashback in which Harrow stumbles upon Ortus, partially undressed, in a compromised position with a corpse (“the dead-dove whiteness of her face, half-covered by his own, rosebuds crushed to deep yellow shadows at his feet”). Harrow is appalled, and spreads word of what she has seen, only to be roundly dismissed. “Oh, but who hadn’t done that,” remarks one of the characters. Even the Emperor brushes off her testimony.

It would be easy to make Harrow the Ninth sound like a relentlessly grim novel, but this is not the case. Towards its end, the story begins spinning like a yo-yo between despair and hope as some of the mysteries are cleared up (albeit with more mysteries emerging to take their place). The novel does, after all, belong to that subgenre of SF most given over to straight-ahead romps: the planetary romance, as developed by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alex Raymond. Tamsyn Muir admittedly updates the subgenre for an era where fandom expects stories that can be picked apart and analysed at length rather than simply enjoyed as escapism on a train journey, but the core elements are there. We get spaceships, swordfights, alien monsters, and lashings of melodrama — plus a healthy dollop of Goth culture, something conspicuously absent from John Carter’s exploits on Barsoom

Harrow the Ninth is the second entry in what was once a projected trilogy (although a fourth novel has already been announced) and so concludes in the open-ended manner that is to be expected from a book in this position. Of course, those who enjoyed the first book will already be in for the long haul.

For a second opinion, read Emily Lauer’s review of Harrow the Ninth.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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