Spoiler free review of Harrow the Ninth.
I started Harrow at the wrong time. When I began in mid-February, I didn’t know my dog was about to have an emergency that would lead to his passing within a month. I couldn’t focus and the book deserved more attention. I put it down for a long time and read comfort fluff. When I picked Harrow back up again I would read it off and on. One night I was determined to finish it, stayed up way too late, and in the morning couldn’t remember what I had read. BUT I did, finally, have a understanding of what was going on, because this book has A LOT going on. Re-reading was going to be necessary to put everything together.
I picked an arbitrary point from the end and started to re-read. Part way through the re-read something was mentioned that I couldn’t properly remember (and was clearly important), so I had to find that section, and then spent more than an hour doing so. Once found, I decided here was probably a better place to start my re-read. Fortunately at this point, I realized what I needed to read and what could be skipped. Between the alternating of present events with the past (as well as changes to one of the timelines), and the changing between third and second person perspective, I haven’t put this much effort into a book in quite some time, but Harrow was worth all the work. Even if they aren’t grieving while reading, this is a book I can easily see someone read and then immediately re-read because they have a whole new understanding of what is going on once they finish.
The swagger of Gideon is gone. Harrowhark is a much different character and we are now walking in her shoes. However, Muir’s turn of phrase and use of language have not changed.
…you immediately wanted to be tossed our the airlock at the idea that your aptitude made you 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.
I said, Put an age requirement in the letter! I said, Everyone will be pubescent if you don’t! And now we reap what he sowed. Hiss” (For a moment you thought you had an aural hallucination, that nobody who had lived ten thousand years – that nobody who had lived – would verbalize the word hiss).
Like Gideon, I had to look up words I didn’t know. For example: Oleaginous, meaning rich in, covered with, or producing oil; oily or greasy. “The water, oleaginous and warming, was thick with the flotsam and jetsam of bits of corpse.” I didn’t recognize ‘apopneumatism’. Turns out to be a word Muir created. If you look up the component parts ‘apo’ and ‘pneumatism’ in their Greek meanings of apo ‘has the spatial sense “away, off, apart”’ and in Greek Alexandrian medical school, ‘pneumatism is based on the theory that life is associated with a subtle vapor called the pneuma’, therefore apopneumatism is life leaving the body. Or as Muir spells out for us, “Apopneumatism. The spirit is forced from their body.” She gives you the definition but I was intensely curious as I didn’t know the word and then went Googling.
In the course of my Googling, I discovered that Muir has pulled from a variety of literary sources (some I caught, many I didn’t). Here is a link that Nora shared on her Gideonseymours.tumblr about the literary references in Harrow, from the bible to Eminem. Nora also wrote about the poetry and the rules that are used in the various poems. I saved this piece to read until after I had finished my penultimate read through and it added a whole other level of appreciation for the work that Muir put into Harrow.
The world Muir created in Gideon explodes outwards into a deep universe where far more is going on than the reader knows. Civilizations are at war for the fate of humanity. There is something wrong with the River that houses the souls of the dead, along with a heretical belief that there is something beyond the River. Answers to mysteries are given but whole new questions rise in their wake. In some ways, the book left me feeling more in the dark about what is “really” going on than Gideon.
While Gideon was like a locked room mystery. Harrow, under all it’s fantasy/political/metaphysical trappings and deep mythology, is a love story about lost girls, grief and the depths one will go to. Harrow can’t bare what has happened and so tries to prevent what is supposed to be the natural order of events. Ianthe can’t bear the loss of her arm and what a newly created one represents. Mercymorn has lost faith in her ten thousands years as a lyctor. They have all been trapped by love and grief, and are trying to find a way forward.
While I would unequivocally recommend Gideon the Ninth to a wide swath of fantasy readers, I’m not sure I would recommend Harrow the Ninth. Harrow is an incredible book but it requires a level of focus and attention that Gideon didn’t and I suspect that it will not be to the taste of everyone who enjoyed the first book. Though I recognize it may not be the same amount of work for others, I found it well worth the effort I had to put in.