Book Review: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
By Doreen SheridanAugust 7, 2020
Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is the second book in the Locked Tomb Trilogy where a galaxy is turned inside out as one necromancer struggles to survive the wreckage of herself aboard the Emperor’s haunted space station.
Firstly, do not bother reading this book if you have not already read the superlative Gideon the Ninth, the first in the Locked Tomb Trilogy. There’s a chance that you’ll understand and enjoy Harrow the Ninth without it, but there are definitely layers—and a whole lot of brilliantly audacious puns—that you’ll miss if you start here. Don’t worry, there are also reams of brilliantly audacious puns in this book, too, but if that’s your thing, you really mustn’t miss out on the gloriousness of the first. Plus, it’ll ease you into this book’s challenging but rewarding science-fantasy system, as our titular hero finds herself one of only two new Lyctors who have ascended from the ruins of Canaan House to serve at the Emperor, the Undying Prince’s side.
Harrow and her fellow “graduate” Ianthe immediately find themselves going from being the most talented necromancers of their age to baby Lyctors desperately in need of training before death comes to claim them all in the form of relentlessly destructive Resurrection Beasts that home in on the Emperor and his ascended ones. The Emperor has thus spirited the girls away to his own personal sanctum, light years away from their home galaxy, to be taught by himself and the Lyctors still standing—Augustine, Mercymorn, and Ortus—in their new powers and responsibilities.
This sanctum, Mithraeum House, becomes the universe’s grimmest training ground; imagine a magical boarding school run and populated by members of the extended Addams Family. Harrow and Ianthe loathe each other even as they’re forced to rely on one another in the face of their erratic teachers. Augustine is at least kind to them, but Mercymorn is hyper-critical, and Ortus—well, he’s taken it into his head that Harrow needs killing, which doesn’t make for a conducive learning environment at the best of times. It also doesn’t help that Harrow very much entertains the idea of killing Ianthe, whom she knows is a stone-cold murderer herself.
You knew how you would do it: she was still fool enough to keep two jewelled candlesticks by her bed, thick with topaz and delicate flecks of polished tarsal, and from those you would smash two ropes of petrous bone straight into either side of her skull. You might run your finger up the inside of your sword blade, curling bone matter from there as though it were butter, fed and strengthened with your own heart’s blood. You might scatter it and thrust squamous pegs of thick phalange through her palms, the fissures between her tibiae and fibulae. At that point you’d get on top of her, use everything you had ever learned from watching Mercymorn the First, and fuse her spine like a hangman’s rope.
Ianthe looked at you, and in the paleness of her skin and in the shadows of her lips was her death, and yours. Then she rolled over and covered her head with her satin pillow. “Go ahead. Kill me,” she said, muffled through a thick layer of down and pillowcase. “I have to train with Augustine in less than five hours anyway and I’ve stayed up too late. Death is preferable.”
Appropriately light-hearted touches like this lend levity to what is otherwise a gory tale of blood and bone magic, conspiracy and violence, as Harrow must not only learn how to survive Mithraeum House but also make sense of what happened to her previously at Canaan House. Things are different in her recollection than readers coming here from Gideon the Ninth will be familiar with, and the greater mystery of this densely written puzzle box of a book lies in why.
Harrow is also a much different protagonist than the irreverent Gideon, from whose viewpoint we enjoyed the first novel. Harrow is very much a product of her pious upbringing and the responsibilities she’s shouldered from almost as soon as she could walk. Whereas Gideon could make a joke out of almost anything, Harrow takes herself very, very seriously, as in this lesson with the Emperor on the concept of a planetary soul:
“Call it a communal soul,” said her Emperor. “What’s a human being, other than a sack of microbial life? You’re a bone adept, aren’t you? Flesh magicians are exposed to this idea of a system earlier than in your school.” This was kindly, even humorously said, but you still found that you immediately wanted to be tossed out the airlock at the idea that your aptitude made you somehow less than a flesh magician: someone whose entire education was in the carnal. Experts in things that were yellow, and wobbled. People who thought there was something really interesting to be found in meat.
He mistook your deeply bigoted hate for disbelief, and said: “Just accept the proposition for now[.“]
Tamsyn Muir’s ability to balance the humor inherent in the life of a self-important teenage girl with the madness that consumes that same girl (who also happens to be a necromancer in space!) is nothing short of genius. And then you get to the plot, which turns so much of what we know inside out and lays the ground for one heck of a finale in Alecto the Ninth. I honestly needed to lie down and process after I finished reading this book. It’s not quite the sheer brilliance of Gideon the Ninth—though the valor of Ortus Nigenad and his companions did make me cry in a way I would never have imagined before it actually happened—partly because this novel reads less like a standalone and more like a connector. That’s appropriate, though, given its place in the series.
Now, I have to wait a year to find out what happens to Harrow and the others who survived Canaan House. As if 2020 wasn’t already the longest year ever! At least I’ve had the hilarious and gruesome company of Ms. Muir’s brilliant creations to help the time go by.