Review: In which I express my frustrations with Harrow the Ninth, which is also sort of brilliant except when it isn’t

And look, there’s no point doing this without spoilers so here’s a fold.

I don’t know when I started reading this book but it was a long time ago and in between time I re-read the whole of Dune and somehow watched the whole of the Fast & Furious franchise from scratch. Arguably, re-reading the whole of Dune and watching the whole of the Fast & Furious franchise from scratch MAY have significantly contributed to my slow (and yet inexorable) progress through this book but no, it is the book that is wrong, not my poor poor reading discipline.

Have you read it? No? OK each chapter for a good half of the book has excellently written chapters that have events, an interesting central character, and some well crafted descriptive passages that gives a very evocative sense of both strangeness and place. They are impeccable. Yet I found this story to have almost no narrative momentum. It’s not that any given chapter bored me or annoyed me but that I’d finish one and had no particular urge to read the next.

The conceit is layered. The story follows directly (in a manner of speaking) from the events of Gideon the Ninth. Having passed the trials of the first book, Harrowhawk is no a lyctor in the service of the God/Emperor/Chief necromancer of whatever this big necromantic space empire is. I had some hopes that the sequel to the first book would open things up a bit and give a clearer sense of the universe this was set in. If anything, the opposite is the true. We are plunged into a space that is claustrophobic and paranoid.

And here it becomes clear that everything frustrating about this book is intentional and carefully crafted. Which is audacious and admirable and likely to get copies of this book hurled out of windows. The book’s structure (at least much of it until it changes in a way that proves the point) reflects Harrow’s personality in a way that makes it clear that Gideon the Ninth as a book reflected Gideon’s.

Harrow is self obsessed, fearful of others and prone to obscuring the truth from others and from herself. So the book is self obsessed, it literally engages in rewriting its predecessor and becomes obsessed with managing its own plot. It seeks to confuse the reader because Harrow seeks to confuse herself.

Except…yes, we the reader don’t know exactly the mechanism behind the shenanigans (a parallel reality, a virtual reality, time travel etc) but it’s obviously going to be something and Harrow did the something and did it to try and save Gideon’s life or soul because of Gideon’s death at the end of the first book. The mechanism (something, something necromancy something) is neither here nor there really and it is just not a sufficient mystery to keep me engaged. I’m not claiming I’d figured it all out (although I did suspect that the two characters with the same name was a big clue that one of them was called Gideon and so patted myself on the back about that one).

I said there would be spoilers remember.

When Gideon’s voice takes over (and again, gosh I wonder who might be doing all this second person narration) and the narration permits her to use her usual tone, the book regains its narrative grip and it is great fun. I read the second half of it in about a quarter of the time it took me to slog through the first half. I just didn’t care enough. The details of the mysteries surrounding Harrow weren’t sufficient and the broad-strokes of the mystery (Harrow has done some shit to either warp reality or warp her perception of it) were to clear. I felt like I was in that initial reading block you get in a chapter 1 of a story that will later turn out to be good but have that feeling last for 20+ chapters or more.

As the reveals arrive, it becomes clear that this was Harrow’s intent. The frustration you experience as a character is something inflicted on you by a character in a book as a specific plot against herself. Harrow is the literal author of what I think of as the ‘prequel’ chapters (the non-second person ones) and she is the editor of the others until Gideon can re-assert her own personality over the narration.

I’d happily say to Tamsyn Muir that is absolutely kind of brilliant and please don’t ever do that again.

And THEN after all that, you get EXACTLY why Gideon (and possibly everybody) else feels the way they do about Harrow and her obsessive, self-scheming-against personality. If the book hadn’t kept the whole conceit going for much longer than was welcome, then it wouldn’t have matched the very-Harrowness it was trying to get at. Which frankly is all a bit fucked up.

Read it or chuck it out of a window. You will enjoy both experiences.

18 thoughts on “Review: In which I express my frustrations with Harrow the Ninth, which is also sort of brilliant except when it isn’t

  1. Can I be honest and admit that I made my way through the first half of the first book and then just gave up? I’m not sure if I’m getting old, or if I’ve managed to be a incredibly juvenile/immature reader while getting old or what, but after a while it was just too much of a struggle to keep going. Does that make me shallow? I’d rather re-read Murderbot.

    Please don’t hate me.

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    1. my dog is named hannah, I don’t think it makes you either immature or shallow — in fact, I would use those words to describe the book. I made it all the way through Gideon and felt as though it was a waste of my precious reading time. I thought that sarcasm was used as a substitute for actual character development, and it ended with a 40-page fight scene which was absolutely, excruciatingly interminable. There were a few other people at File 770 who also hated it — so no, you’re not alone. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    2. //Can I be honest and admit that I made my way through the first half of the first book and then just gave up?//

      I considered giving up and it was a close call. I enjoyed it a lot more when it was over.

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    3. I very much enjoyed Gideon 9 (and Harrow 9), but I perfectly understand that you didn’t. No book can appeal to every reader, and Gideon 9 was, well, weird. (Harrow 9 was also weird, but in a way different than Gideon 9.)

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  2. Well, Dang. I was all excited to read Harrow, but now I’m not sure I want to. Maybe I’ll just reread Gideon instead and save my $13.99 for something else. I think there’s a new Penric novella that’s calling my name.

    I do all of my fiction reading on my phone these days, so books that make me want to throw them against the wall are a problem.

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  3. The reasons other people may not like this book are exactly the reasons I *loved* it. For me it was a vastly stronger book than Gideon, and really showcased Muir’s writing chops. Harrow is also just a vastly more interesting character – worryingly I relate to her much better than I related to Gideon.

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      1. I’ll admit the gear shift between G and H is… jarring, to say the least. I’m sure many a book will be launched if people go in expecting another G and getting… not that. I’m always a big fan of scattered, disjointed narratives and wildly unreliable narrators, though. It pushed a lot of buttons for me.

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      2. Indeed. I haven’t read the first one, and wasn’t intending to (too much stuff, too little time) but I too am a sucker for “unreliable narrators” in fiction, and although this clearly isn’t strictly one, it seems as though it touches all the right bases.
        Plus when I do get around to it, I’ll have forgotten everything in this post anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I reviewed this at my blog this week: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2020/09/scififantasy-book-review-harrow-ninth.html and had similar feelings to you.

    Without spoiling anything, my biggest problem here is that the problems with Gideon the Ninth are multiplied 1000x fold: Muir doesn’t explain anything about the setting – even makes it into mysteries to be revealed later quite often – even when the characters are quite well aware of how the setting should be (even if it isn’t the truth) which makes it impossible to care when Muir then tries to flip the script and reveal that the setting isn’t quite what it seems. Why do I care about Necrolord Prime and the Nine Houses when I have no clue what the hell their setup is? Why do I care about the “Resurrection” and its reality – and what came before – if you never tell me what it is!

    And yet the book tries to have a big payoff featuring a surprise antagonist at the end based on all these things. And it missed me entirely because I DID NOT CARE. The book got away with this in GtN because Gideon’s voice was incredibly fun, and you’re right here that when it returns it does make things a lot more readable, but until then, without it these problems are just so much clearer and annoying. Add in the fact that a monster that has been built up to be the ultimate threat from the book’s in-media-res beginning is promptly dealt with OFF PAGE and well….gah.

    I wrote like a whole review worth of spoilery talk in ROT13 in my review honestly, because this was one of the more frustrating reads I’ve read in a while.

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  5. I liked it more than you did. I think I enjoyed Gideon so much, and there was so much that was brilliant in that book, that I trusted Muir to know what she was doing. At the same time, I was also very frustrated — what the hell happened to the events of the first book?! Why is the dead guy back? Why are we reading at alternate version of things we saw *with our own eyes*?!

    So I’m saving my book-hurling activities for the third book. If things aren’t cleared up by then, that book’s going to hit the wall at warp speed.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My feelings about the early chapters were mixed—I wanted them to be faster and less claustrophobic, but I could. not. stop. reading. them. The further I went the more the book drew me in. It helped that early on I had a suspicion about who was in the Locked Tomb and why, and I was pleased to discover that I was right. By the end of the book I also had figured out how Harrow got into the Locked Tomb, why the station has an incinerator, and that I must never ever allow Harrow to cook dinner for me, so while I still had a lot of questions I wasn’t upset about it.

    It also helped that there are some genuinely funny moments scattered about the book. “Old people should be shot”, the barista pun, “Why am I speaking in meter”, “Chickenshits doesn’t get beer”; the whole concept of raising the ghost of a dead hero with bad fanfic, ‘the most dangerous woman I’ve ever met who wasn’t me”; there are probably others that I can’t remember.

    I also have a theory about who the second person narrator is (was?), but I need to do a reread to see if it stands up. That project has been backburnered because the nearer we get to election day the harder it is for me to concentrate. I’ve gone back to rereading the Goblin Emperor.

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  7. I’m getting to this a bit late (haven’t been keeping up with blogs this month).

    I loved, loved, loved Gideon the Ninth. I was very confused in the beginning of Harrow the Night, to the point a few chapters in I went back to re-read some of it because I honestly felt as if somehow I had slipped into an alternate timeline where the plot of the first book was very different. Then I came back, re-read the first few chapters, and made a guess as to what was happening. The specifics weren’t right, but the general gist was.

    I would have liked it to have moved faster than it did, but I also had gone into it with the assumption I always have about trilogies: the middle book will have problems.

    I certainly enjoyed the last third of the book more than the first two-thirds, but it was never not entertaining.But, like Nancy, I could not stop turning the pages.

    And I’m looking forward to the third book.

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