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.