Return of the Space Lesbians: Tamsyn Muir’s “Harrow the Ninth” Is a Maze of Grief, Gore, and Possibly Global Warming

In Gideon the Ninth, Gideon Nav’s narration is boisterous, blunt and sprinkled with the kind of delightfully lewd profanity that would make even a cloistered nun of the Locked Tomb blush through her grease-paint. I fell in love with her voice and character instantly.

Harrow the Ninth is different. The inside of Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s head is morose, macabre and confusing. There’s comparatively little levity. At times the dark, winding corridors we’re led down truly seem to be headed nowhere, a sensation that can be off-putting. For much of the book, Harrow is trudging lost through her own mind, and we’re right there with her. At one point she stays awake for days to ward off assassination attempts by a fellow lyctor, and as she descends deeper into the well of fear and sleep deprivation, I’m riding the bucket down, too. This is partly because of Tamsyn Muir’s skilled and immersive writing, and partly because I read Harrow in the thick of grieving my mother.

Harrow’s situation is different from mine in a few ways though, the main one being that for a significant portion of the book, she doesn’t know she’s grieving. Instead, she suffers through all the familiar effects like despondency, hair-trigger hysteria and the general inability to function properly (as well as some less familiar ones, like an inexplicable emotional and physical attachment to a mysterious sword that also nauseates her), all while wondering why she’s so bad at being a lyctor.

The Harrow of Gideon is powerful and highly competent, so this development came as a surprise. The “magical system” (for lack of a better term) of The Locked Tomb trilogy has been crafted with care since the start, and Harrow doesn’t deviate from this precedent. And though its rules are communicated to readers mainly through the characters’ actions, rather than exposition (a choice that takes skill to execute, which Tamsyn Muir has in spades), some things seem certain. The end of Gideon saw Harrow and Gideon’s enemies-to-frenemies-to-clutching-one-another-in-a-pool-brimming-with-unbearable-intimacy (a quintessential queer experience, of course) relationship culminate in Gideon sacrificing her life to defeat vengeful lyctor Cytherea. As things stand, we’re to believe that this means Gideon is gone forever, absorbed into Harrow to serve as a grotesque power source that should be working like a rechargeable battery and for some reason is instead more like an expired Five Hour Energy.

It’s understandable that Harrow is shaken by this. And yet, she seems to be in a singular, ceaseless battle to protect herself from the depth of her emotions, and the consequences of her actions (sound familiar to anyone?). Throughout the book, she contorts herself so grotesquely to avoid facing the truth that from the shrouded corridors of her faulty memory emerge entirely new monsters and challenges. Even the events that took place at Canaan House during Gideon are warped, creating a new villain from the ash of the past who kills instantly when disturbed and so, like the mind of someone barely clinging to composure, requires perpetual, nerve-fraying vigilance.

Harrow’s newfound closeness to her religious beliefs doesn’t do her fragile mental state any favors, either. As his invitation to Canaan House in Gideon suggested, God (or John, as he is sometimes called) is an active and vital presence. His theology is ever-expanding—to the great chagrin of some, and often in ways that catch Harrow (and readers) off-guard.

Harrow has got Ianthe Tridentarius in on it too, sworn to secrecy using bone magic, and sworn as secretary of some letters that Harrow has written for herself—contingency plans for all kinds of situations. The relationship between Harrow and Ianthe is at times surprisingly tender—although more frequently it is infuriating, disgusting, darkly funny or all of the above. Of course, nothing will hold a candle to the razor-sharp rapport that Harrow and Gideon had in the last book, and perhaps the exchanges between these two are meant to highlight that fact.

The change in tone can take some getting used to, and at moments can make the book feel like a marathon. But ultimately, it’s like the flip side of the coin that was Gideon’s brash exuberance. An opposite pole, a foil—all the things that made Gideon and Harrow so great together to start with. The small but significant reprise this book gives us of Gideon’s voice serves as a good reminder.

The world of The Locked Tomb trilogy has always appeared too similar to our own to be an entirely separate fictional universe. Yes, there are obvious differences (for example, a death-obsessed religion that reveres a man named John), but there are also points of confluence too obvious to ignore (in fact, it’s possible that cults fashioned around the worship of a secretive man with a one-syllable, stunningly suburban middle-aged white dude name are in this category, too).

Tamsyn Muir is so clearly deliberate even in the minutiae of her work that it seems impossible that these similarities point to anything other than a relationship between our world, and Harrow’s. But if they are linked, what exactly does that mean? Off-handed references in both Gideon and Harrow to massive rains, flooding, rising seas, fires and sweltering heat in the distant past sound remarkably like our present. How can we escape even briefly into a world of animated skeletons, swashbuckling and ever-looming doom when we suspect it’s meant to be just down the road from our own sometimes overwhelming sense of ruination?

For me, and I suspect for many, escapism is becoming impractical. Sometimes, what you really need is a story that understands how grief can ricochet through the entire universe. And, thanks to Harrow, we know all too well what happens when something with the gravity and lifeforce of a planet dies. It’s these feelings of isolation that make Harrow not just a worthwhile sequel to Gideon, and a tour-de-force of storytelling in its own right, but also a story suited to our times. I can’t imagine an easier time to empathize with Harrow.

Interested in moving through the drafty, eerie space of a ship that is simultaneously incredibly intimidating and laughably mundane (what kind of plastic are the chairs in the Emperor Undying’s kitchen made of?) while mourning something you are so unwilling to confront that you have pushed it away with everything you have (and remember, for Harrow, “everything” is a considerable amount)? Then this is the story for you. You might also want to take notes, though—especially if the next book, Alecto the Ninth, is equally heavy on references to earlier parts of the series. If you’re expecting a similar pace and style to Gideon the Ninth, you should know that Harrow is a unique animal. It’s circuitous and maddening and ultimately delicious, if you’ve got the patience for a puzzle, and you’re in the mood to savor.

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Lindsay Lee Wallace is a writer, and book publicist and chronic over-thinker covering politics and pop culture.

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3 Comments

  1. I just finished this book, so this article is perfect timing! I enjoyed Harrow, but it was definitely hard to navigate the first 2/3 of the book. The last 1/3 was a great read and it answered a lot of questions but also left a lot of mystery. I think I liked “Gideon” more than “Harrow”, but the overall story is a wonderful read. Her writing is excellent and I am excited to see how this wraps up.

  2. I was delighted by how much longer Harrow was, letting me savor in a desperate desire for the mysteries to unfold, but never really wanting the book to end. I’m going to be thinking about these characters constantly until the next book. I haven’t been this enraptured by a fictional universe since I started the Imperial Radch trilogy.

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