Sorry, but it’s nigh on impossible to discuss this book without mentioning the endgame from Gideon The Ninth. You probably shouldn’t be picking up this book anyhow if you haven’t read Gideon. And if you have read Gideon, perhaps give it a bit of a re-read before embarking on Harrow The Ninth.
You will thank me later. This book enjoys being tricky
Man, this was one of my most anticipated books of the summer. After the wild ride that was Gideon The Ninth, I was fighting to get my hands on the sequel. I probably read it way too fast for my own good. And now I seem to have some kind of mental indigestion.
But in a good way, in a good way… like an ‘I ate too much BBQ’ kind of way. I mean, I have discomfort, but I also have no regrets.
The ending of Gideon The Ninth was tragic. Harrowhawk Nonagesimus had achieved the pinnacle of necromancy: she had ascended to Lyctorhood and was finally eligible to serve alongside the King Undying. However, she was only able to achieve this thanks to an act of self-sacrifice by Gideon. When we last left her, Harrow seemed consumed with grief, albeit in an otherwise decent state. She seemed safe. She seemed to be in one piece.
However, by the time she’s ready to start her Lyctoral training, things have taken a serious slide. Harrow has fallen apart. When she’s not dissolving into a murderous rage, she’s a puking mess. She’s irrationally afraid of her broadsword and cannot trust her own perceptions. To go from someone who proudly proclaimed that she was the most talented necromancer of her house – besting both her father and grandmother – to this? It’s a huge shock.
Even her own memories are off-kilter: her recollections of what occurred in Canaan House do not match up with the first book at all. Shaped by a very notable absence, they give off strange, subtle Silent Hill vibes. Whatever it is that’s going on with Harrow, some of the early chapters give the impression that she may have been the one to instigate it. But the further along you go, the less certain of that you can be.
What this does give us is the one narrative similarity between Gideon and Harrow: they both have protagonists who are not totally aware of what’s going on around them. In the first book, this was due to the fact that Gideon – and don’t get me wrong, I loved the girl, really I did – was a bit thick. She was the dumb muscle who kept company with a group of people that could only be described as hyper-intelligent over-achievers, and as a result, she was not just steps behind everyone else, but leagues.
In this book, Harrow is sort of the same. While she could be described as a necromantic prodigy, she is very new to Lyctorhood, and for once in her life, her skills are dwarfed by the people around her. This is compounded by the fact that she’s not in full possession of her wits and not in a position to trust her own judgement. In both cases, the reader’s knowledge ends up outstripping that of the POVs, and you’re left frantically hoping that they catch up.
But this is where the similarities end. Harrow The Ninth, for the most part, reads very differently to Gideon. It may have been a deeply weird book, but the narrative of Gideon mirrored that of its protagonist – determinedly bashing through whatever it’s odd surrounds threw at it. The narrative of Harrow is more complex, and a more than fitting reflection of a girl that’s losing grip on her sanity. Everything in the near-present is told in the second person, while all recollections from Harrow’s ‘past’ are told in the third. I know some people struggle with the second person, but without giving away too many spoilers, it’s use serves a purpose. But the whole book is tricky and layered, and I would suggest taking care when reading it. Unless you want to end up like me; in dire need of some mental antacids.
But Harrow’s inner turmoil, self-inflicted or not, is not the only plot driving Harrow The Ninth. Harrow, and Ianthe – darkhorse candidate extraordinaire and the only other survivor of Caanan House to ascend to Lyctorhood – have both been taken to the Emperor’s sanctum, the Mithraeum, to train on his behalf. The King Undying is besieged on two fronts: while he contends with the vengeful renevants of the dead planets that have been hunting them all since the Great Ressurection on one hand, he’s also dealing with an anti necromantic terrorist group that shares a name with a Peter Gabriel song on the other. The question is, can Harrow overcome her issues enough to assist? Or will someone take it into their own hands to put her out of her misery?
You were only half a Lyctor, and half a Lyctor was worse than not a Lyctor at all
I couldn’t believe it at first, but I really ended up welcoming the return of Ianthe. Due to her best efforts to fly under the radar in the first book, we never really developed a true picture of her – she was just a sneaky bitch. But in Harrow, she really gets a chance to show us that she’s more than that: she’s actually a mega-bitch. She’s simply dreadful but in an oddly compelling way. She sort of got this sleazy, sneering charm about her that, I’ll be honest, I have only ever really seen in characters that are male antagonists. She also an absolute fiend for drama, and if there’s isn’t any to be found, she will happily do something nasty for shits and giggles just to make some.
Not that she has to do that too often, mind. Whatever the other Lyctors have achieved in the 10,000 years of their existence, a sense of maturity or the ability to maintain cohesive interpersonal relationships does not count among them. Mercymorn, the Saint of Joy, might look as prim as a statue of the Virgin Mary, but she’s so perpetually frustrated that it seems like she’s just seconds away from throwing a shrieking and flailing Lemongrab-style meltdown. Her senior, Augustine, the Saint of Patience, is a man who hides a deep level of disdain for nearly everybody beneath a foppish, languid exterior. He has also taken to smoking in space stations because he doesn’t seem to give a shit.
He and Mercymorn loath each other. They have hardly spoken in 20 years.
Then there is the third Saint, the reclusive Saint of Duty, who despite his stoic exterior, is a bit of an odd duck. And I might just leave it at that…
And as for the Necromancer Divine, King of the Nine Renewals, the Resurrector, the Necrolord Prime? On the first impression, he manages to come across as both a divine being and a harried, frayed schoolteacher. While he does spend most of his time wearing the facade of The Kindly Prince, he’s certainly not afraid to resort to some less than professional tactics himself when dealing with his underlings. His early interactions with Mercymorn, in particular, are gold. He mocks her name when she gives him the shits and makes fake static noises on the intercom when he doesn’t want to deal with her.
“Mercymorn,” said the Emperor, “you know as well as I do that keeping your name from your rightful sisters is ridiculous. Also, you are trying to start a fight with me to get out of the fight I am trying to have with you, which is a painfully domestic tactic.”
His reaction on finding out one that of his loyal subjects exsanguinated themselves on his behalf, and is now in dire need of resurrection, is also hilarious:
The Emperor mumbled something that, you would swear on the rock before the Tomb, sounded like For fuck’s sake
And as terribly amusing as he is, we need to keep in mind that the working environment of any organisation is usually reflective of management; demnstrating that the man who was God, and the God who was man is very much human and not divine in this respect. Or perhaps I’m confining myself too much by comparing God and His Saints to Christiandom, and instead, I should be comparing them to the other space-faring deities we know of – the Norse.
By this point, you might be asking: what about the other things that made Gideon The Ninth great? What about the frenetic action? The smart-arse sense of humour? The bones? Rest assured you will not be disappointed – but you may have to be patient. While the Mithraeum has slightly fewer skeletons than either the Ninth House or Canaan House, the place still a carries a Gothic-bone vibe. With her developing Lyctor powers, Harrow can do even more crazy things with bones. She even gets to play at being Doctor Skelebone. One of the Lyctors can dismantle nearly anything that can be constructed by bone. ALL the Lyctors are down to bone – no really, they are a bunch of horny buggers. (Sacrilege may have also been performed.)
The secret ingredient is bone!
As for the bad jokes and the madcap action, you get that coming into the climax, where this book goes through an even more drastic gear change than its predecessor. Shit really hits the fan, and you finally get to see those swords put to good use – as well as some more ‘archaic’ weapons. Also, if you miss Gideon’s sense of humour, never fear – another contender enters the ring and basically one-ups her. One flex of their metaphorical meme-bicep and I was reduced to stunned, wheezing laughter for several minutes.
A curious thing I noticed though – it’s only the new champion of worst-best memes and some of the people around them that make much use of this kind of anachronistic language. They are also the same kind of people who occasionally drop what stood out to me as some very Australian-sounding turns of phrase. (Which, with the author being from New Zealand, are probably actually Kiwi turns of phrase.) I hadn’t noticed any antipode-isms in the previous book, and I originally assumed that Gideon’s bad jokes and Buffy-the-Vampire style speak were just some kind of stand-in for what-ever passed for pop-culture in that particular part of space and time.
Now I’m not so sure.
I don’t really know how else to impart on you how crazy this book is, and how much I enjoyed it. So please accept my attempt at a mood board (or mental regurgitation) as a substitute.
(Please scroll through rapidly if you don’t want even vaguest hints of spoilers)
And please let me know if anyone else ends up reading it. I have an urge to discuss, and currently, no one to do it with.
For the bingo, I’m going for H for Harrow and H for Happy.
And now I’m going to go take a Mylanta.