One Flesh, One End: A Review of Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

There are no other books quite like Harrow the Ninth.  The second novel in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy following Gideon the Ninth, Harrow the Ninth seemingly follows the conventions of a sequel while consistently turning things on their heads at every opportunity.  As the second story in a trilogy, audiences come in with a certain expectation.  Where the first book is meant to set up the characters and the overarching plot, it still ends in an apparent victory.  The second book need to expand the world, introduce new mysteries, and provide a lead-up to the third and final chapter.  Harrow the Ninth does do this, but not in any expected way.  Instead, it creates a mood piece focusing intimately on our main heroine as she navigates a wholly unfamiliar world out to destroy her at every turn.  Many questions are asked, some are answered, but Muir never loses sight of the story she wants to tell.

Before discussing anything found in Harrow the Ninth, you must be familiar with the previous novel, Gideon the Ninth.  This is not a book you can step into without knowing the relationship between the two titular heroines.  In Gideon the Ninth, we are introduced to Gideon Nav, an orphan living on the planet of the Ninth House in a far-future intergalactic empire founded on necromancy.  Blending science-fiction, fantasy, romance, and adventure tropes, Gideon is a darkly fun and funny heroine to follow.  Desperate to escape and get away from the dreariness of a necromantic noble house, Gideon opens the novel by packing her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines and attempting to leave.  Instead, she is appointed as the cavalier primary to the heir of the ninth house, Harrowhark.  Together, the two travel to the planet of their emperor and are tasked with investigated a crumbling, gothic castle.  In Canaan House, they are joined by the necromancers of the other houses, along with their cavaliers.  Horror and intrigue follow as foes work in the shadows.  In the end, it is revealed that one of the emperor’s own attendants has sabotaged the task in order to draw out the emperor in an assignation attempt.  Gideon gives her life, and her soul, to Harrow to give the necromancer enough power to finally kill their powerful foe.  After a slowly building possible romance between the two, Harrow loses Gideon before she can ever truly have her.

Harrow the Ninth begins not long after the finale of Gideon the Ninth.  Harrow has survived her ordeal in Canaan House and is now in training to become one of the emperor’s personal servants.  A Saint serving the Necrolord Prime.  In the firsts book, the emperor is equated to God and spoke of in hushed whispers, a figure whom is more than human, the source of necromancy who draws his magic directly from the sun of their solar system.  Harrow the Ninth brings this emperor, John, to the forefront and steadily breaks down the god-like suppositions people have made around him.  While Harrow must grapple with meeting her god in person, she begins to realize that something is seriously wrong.  Her memories and jumbled, she is in possession of a great sword she had no memory of obtaining, and one of her rivals is in possession of letters writer by Harrow, letters she does not remember writing.  Some of which are addressed to her.  She remembers the events of Canaan House, somewhat.  She remembers fighting the emperor’s would-be assassin and her cavalier giving their soul to her.  A cavalier not named Gideon Nav. 

In storytelling, there are three points-of-view from which to tell your story.  The first and most common is the third-person narrative.  This is where the novel is told from an outside narrator, one who may be familiar with the thoughts of the main character.  The book describes a character’s actions as “they did this.”  After that is the first-person narrative, where the main character of the story tells it themselves.  “This is my story, and I will tell you exactly how it happened.”  While not as common as the third-person narrative, this is chance to really dive into the psyche of a main character.  Gideon the Ninth was told in the third-person, as is half of Harrow the Ninth.  The third and least common narrative structure is second-person.  In a sense, you, the reader, are taking on the role of the main character.  “You got up from your desk and you turned on the light.”  Second person is difficult to maintain and even harder to get right.  Yet, Muir is able to skillfully tell more than half of Harrow the Ninth in the apparent second-person style.  Harrow is being told what she did, as if reminding herself of what happened before she regained her memories.  The present, as it were, of the novel is told in this second-person, while the third-person operates as a retelling of Gideon the Ninth in an apparent retcon, showing just how badly Harrow’s memories have been tampered with.  This narrative structure is more successful than it has any right to be and is absolutely a successful experiment.

Aside from experimenting with narrative, Muir also plays around with the conventional plot devices.  While both Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth center around mysteries, the mystery takes a backseat to the main characters.  Harrow the Ninth operates as both a mood piece and an examination of a heroine’s fractured psyche.  As Harrow’s memories contradict with each more and more, it is safe to assume readers will get confused.  But the confusion is shared with Harrow.  In fact, confusion as a plot mechanic has become a calling card of this series.  The characters we follow are never in possession of all the information and, for the most part, do not even know where to look for it.  The context to even begin addressing the book’s central mysteries is missing.  Instead, we are treated to multiple hints out of order, and get to watch as Harrow tries to piece things together, often coming to the incorrect conclusions.  While layers are peeling back on some of the mysteries presented, Harrow the Ninth introduces many more before the final page is turned.

Part of the trouble of discussing a book like this is how easily it is to spoil the plot.  One wrong word in this review could change a reader’s entire perspective on the novel.  The process of discovery, and the suffering from confusion, is part of the enjoyment of Harrow the Ninth.  The book has not been out too long, but there are already entire reddit threads dedicated to untangling the mysteries and discussing fan theories.  There are multiple ways to interpret the events of the novel and, while Muir may know exactly what happened, part of the fun is trying to discover it for ourselves.  More to the point, nothing beats the personal realization when a reader figures out what is happening after piecing together the disparate clues.  However, the one thing that can be discussed about a book like Harrow the Ninth is how refreshing its presents romance.  There are no preconceptions, and the world within the novel operates on the assumption that non-heterosexual relationships are just a matter-of-fact.  Around the world, members of the lgbtq+ community are unfairly targeted and discriminated against for daring to be something other than cisgender, to love someone other than whom heterosexuals order them to love.  There is no discrimination in the world of the Locked Tomb trilogy, and Muir treats non-heterosexual romance as it should be treated: completely, absolutely, normal.

There is only one novel left in the Locked Tomb trilogy; Alecto the Ninth.  It is impossible to even discuss what we know about this third novel without massively spoiling Harrow the Ninth, but suffice it to say the ending of Harrow the Ninth leaves the story in a more interesting place than when it began.  Some questions are answered, many more are raised, and the novel ends on an ambiguous, if somewhat romantic, note.  The story of Gideon and Harrow is not over, and their fates will ever be on our minds until the release of Alecto the Ninth.  In the everlasting words of Gideon Nav; “One flesh, one end, bitch.”

Harrow the Ninth can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 20 days

Next on the List: Chaos Reigning, by Jessie Mihalik

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