THIS book. What a ride. Gonna go ahead and announce now that pretty much this entire review is going to be a SPOILER because I’m not sure how to talk about it without doing so. If you’re looking for a quick (spoilerless) opinion on whether or not you should read it, I would say:
Yes. Read it, but don’t drop anything you’re super excited about to do so. There is a lot to appreciate in Harrow the Ninth, but personally, it was a bit of a slog. If you’re expecting to enjoy it for any of the reasons you liked Gideon the Ninth, you will probably be disappointed. Harrow, it seems, goes decidedly her own way (we should expect nothing less).
All of that said, I feel it was worthy of the accolades it’s received, but it probably won’t be my pick for the Best Novel Hugo Award. To explain why, we’ll have to get spoilery . . .
— Entering Spoilerland —
— Look out! —
Ok. Now that I’m done having fun, what’s the deal with this book and how can I think it a slog, but a good enough slog to win an award?
Essentially, Harrow the Ninth is a (mostly) well written book that expects a lot from its readers, and pushes a lot of boundaries all at once. Personally, I feel as if this should have been right up my alley, as I pretty much go all in for things any time they get weird or unexpected. This book did all of that in droves, but I believe it suffered mainly from expectations set up by the first book, Gideon the Ninth.
Gideon the Ninth was a gem which seemingly we all could admire. My review described it as both fun and provoking. Down to its simplest elements, it was a mystery, and an adventure. Start accounting for some of its complexity, and it was a prompt on the nature of abusive relationships and what kinds of things we’re ‘allowed’ to show in our fiction . . .
Harrow, in many ways, left all of that behind for a rumination on grief, loss, and mental health. It traded in a somewhat (enthusiastically) crass but ultimately consistent narration for shifting types of POV (mostly 2nd person, and 3rd person, but some 1st person too) along a non-linear narrative and alternative reality dream sequences. It shattered any trust we had in ourselves as readers to a) remember past events in the story (aka book 1) and b) understand at any given moment what the hell is actually going on.
Too put it simply, reading Harrow the Ninth felt like being gaslit for 400 pages.
This in fact, makes perfect sense for the novel since we’re reading AS a main character who is trying so hard to repress any feelings of grief or loss, that she literally gives herself a lobotomy (I suppose Ianthe helps) to wipe out all memory of what she fears to lose.
That Muir is able to manage this weird sort of readers-are-so-deep-into-the-character-we’re-essentially-method-acting is, from a technical standpoint, quite incredible. And as a writer, I’m in awe and hope that I will someday be able to pull off something half so complicated.
Being gaslit, however, isn’t exactly pleasant, and I found that I was somewhat eager to distract myself from this book, and often reluctant to pick it back up.
So why do so many consider this book so good?
Obviously, it’s impossible to say for sure, but I would point to the following:
Considering how serious everything in the Locked Tomb series seems to be, there is a surprising amount of humor within the series. In Harrow the Ninth, it’s often Ianthe’s frank wit (and unapologetically misplaced morals) or Harrow’s general hatred and reluctance for everything that do most of the heavy lifting. We aren’t given any Gideon lines until the last quarter of the book.
Personally, I was most often chuckling at the seemingly normal (and quite frankly bureaucratic) nature of The Necrolord Prime, aka God, aka John.
For some complexity is beautiful
Reread everything I wrote a little bit ago about the shifting (and unreliable) POV, non-linear narrative, and alternate realities. From a technical standpoint this is amazing to see unfold.
Women Being Badasses
I feel like this is where the rubber meets the road for most people, and is one of the main draws to the series. Harrow the Ninth, as with Gideon the Ninth, is still a story about women who defy expectations. Who want more than whatever bullshit they’ve been given, and are ready to rain hellfire upon the world until they get it.
I think this quote from a Vox interview with Tamsyn Muir really put it in perspective for me (emphasis my own):
“As anybody else who was born in and around 1985 will know, a lot of the stories we got fed, even in a time where women were out in the battlefield more, was that at the end of the day, being angry and fighting actually wasn’t great. And so what the real takeaway at the end of the day was, the love of your friends and hugs is the greatest thing that a woman can have. So being able to repudiate that and give a middle finger to the “a woman’s place is actually the peacemaker and the heart of the group” has undeniably set the tone of the books.”https://www.vox.com/culture/22266652/tamsyn-muir-interview-locked-tomb-gideon-the-ninth-harrow-the-ninth-vox-book-club
There still isn’t enough of this in fiction, even in this, the year of our lord (necrolord? John?), 2021. We’re still fighting old ways of thinking, and despite all of the confusion of this story’s structure, these characters (Harrow, Gideon, Ianthe) are powerful.
So . . . Should it get the Hugo?
It is certainly worthy of one, but it won’t be my choice. While I can appreciate everything that his book was able to accomplish, I just can’t shake the fact that while reading it, I had almost no desire to complete it. Harrow the Ninth is in many ways a masterpiece, but it wasn’t the one I was led to believe I’d be reading, and the entire time I read it, I was just waiting for it to be different. By the time it started to become the book I wanted (aka when we finally get Gideon back), it felt like my order got lost at a restaurant. The food was cold, and I was already too upset at the wait to enjoy it anyway . . .
Oof, I hate writing negative reviews. If you think I’m wrong about this one (or even if you think I’m right), let me know in the comments section. Also, some things I learned about while writing this review which I couldn’t figure out how to squeeze into the review, but that Muir squeezed into the book:
Anywho, see you next time. Thanks for reading!