Robyn Reviews: Harrow the Ninth

harrow

“You are a walking miracle. A unique theorem. A natural wonder.”
“I’ve just told you that I am the product of my parents’ genocide.”

Harrow the Ninth is one of the most audacious books I’ve ever read. It breaks every single rule of novel writing, launching the reader in with no explanation and making them more and more confused. The writing is gorgeous, filled with hauntingly beautiful descriptions and metaphors – but also with memes, an inclusion that wouldn’t work in any other book but works here. I’m frankly amazed that Tor agreed to publish this, but the literary world would be a far inferior place if they hadn’t. For all its sins, this is an absolutely brilliant book, and I can’t believe I have to wait an entire year to find out what happens next.

Harrow the Ninth is the direct sequel to Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel. Pitched as lesbian necromancers in space, Gideon the Ninth followed Gideon Nav – a child of the Ninth House whose only desire was to leave the Ninth House behind – and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and Gideon’s sworn enemy. In a twist of fate, Gideon ended up accompanying Harrow to an inter-House competition as her sworn protector – her cavalier – as Harrow fought to attain Lyctorhood, the only thing that might save her dying House and its people.

“I saw your corpse.”
“Well, don’t tell everyone, or they’ll want to see it to.”

Where Gideon the Ninth was told from Gideon’s point of view, Harrow the Ninth is – of course – told from Harrow’s. Gideon was a wise-cracking joker, one of the best swordswomen of all the nine Houses but even sharper with her words than her swords. Harrow, on the other hand, is a nun. Stepping into her head is a complete tone change from Gideon the Ninth. Instead of a constant stream of insults and puns, there’s solemnity, piety – and, it gradually becomes apparent, insanity.

Harrow is the ultimate unreliable narrator. There are two threads – Harrow now, training with Mercymorn and trying to survive in a new world where she knows none of the rules (but understands she’s breaking all of them), and Harrow back at Canaan House. Except, Harrow’s version of the events at Canaan House is fractured. Wrong. Harrow’s mind holds all the pieces to the jigsaw but keeps assembling them incorrectly. It’s never clear how much of what Harrow sees is real.

You were an unfilled hole, but even a hole might be content in its emptiness.

Looking inside Harrow’s head is fascinating. From Gideon’s perspective, Harrow went from a hated enemy to a reluctant ally to a friend – and even something more. Harrow was devout but reckless, one of the most talented necromancers the Ninth House had ever produced but shackled by sheer piety. Gideon found her ridiculous – her insistence on full ceremonial dress, her reliance on bones over any physical strength. She also admired her – her strength, her terrible choices in worse circumstances. Gideon could relate to Harrow more than anyone else in the world.

Harrow as seen by Harrow is nothing like Harrow as seen by Gideon. Harrow as seen by Harrow is a monster. An abomination. Harrow is the result of the Ninth House’s ultimate sacrifice and she didn’t even come out correctly. She’s less a person than an inhabitant of a flesh suit. She wraps herself in layers of black and face paint to present a mask to the world that hides the screaming child within. She doesn’t have friends – she has allies, and even them she doesn’t trust. She prostrates herself before God – but God isn’t what she expected, and when a nun with nothing but her faith starts to lose that, is there anything left of her at all?

I was nothing but a chess move in a thousand year old game.

This isn’t a book for the faint hearted, and it’s not a book to read without the utmost concentration. It took me days to read, not because I didn’t love it but because I had to be in the right headspace to appreciate it. It’s a tangled mess, but a beautiful one. The ending perfectly untangles all the threads, then promptly snaps them, careening in an entirely different direction ready for the final book. It’s a masterpiece – nothing like what I expected but everything I didn’t know I needed. The majority of the book is also told in second person – a bold choice rarely seen in fiction but one that works perfectly here.

If you like fantasy, read this book. If you like science fiction, read this book. If you like unreliable narrators, read this book. And if you like stories that will remove your brain from your skull, put it through a blender, season it, and serve it as soup, then definitely read this book (although possibly not while eating soup. You have been warned.)

You sawed open your skull rather than be beholden to someone… You put me in a box and buried me rather than give up your own goddamned agenda.
I gave you my whole life and you didn’t even want it.

 

Published by Tor
Hardback: 4th August 2020

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