Deep Space Necromancy, the Sequel: A Review of Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

“But Harrowhark––Harrow, who was two hundred dead children; Harrow, who loved something that had not been alive for ten thousand years––Harrowhark Nonagesimus had always so badly wanted to live. She had cost too much to die.”

Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Harrow the Ninth is necromantic space opera featuring only the most mouth-watering of clavicles. Get ready to experience ten thousand years of sexual tension among saints on a deep space station. Be swallowed by a semi-corporeal river of Eldritch terrors. Witness a murder plot that starts and ends with a thin broth. And the memes––oh, the memes. Tamsyn Muir has undoubtedly spun one of the most unique science fiction horror sagas to ever exist. Her prose––for better or for worse––feels like an ornate candelabra, heavy in my grip. Muir has committed to her aesthetic and it is an aesthetic that I can sink into like a velvet-lined coffin.

Unfortunately, while I loved certain aspects of the novel (aesthetic included), it was a letdown compared to its predecessor, Gideon the Ninth. I can forgive a debut novel for iffy pacing and overly dense backstory. Going into a space saga sequel, I expect the author to have learned from the pitfalls of the debut. I’m disappointed to report that much of the problems present in Gideon the Ninth were only exacerbated in Harrow the Ninth. Muir had my jaw dropping, she had me laughing, but I was also incredibly frustrated because the novel was asking too much of me as a reader (which is saying something, because I read the entire A Song of Ice and Fire saga in two months). There is enjoyment to be wrought from Harrow the Ninth, but it’s up to the reader to weigh the pros and cons before deciding to commit.

Tamsyn Muir is the Necrolord Prime of details and characters. Of viscera. Of drama. Of Harrow’s deep, sensual love for a corpse. This is where her work shines––beautiful and grotesque imagery, witty dialogue, the essence of fully humanized characters. Muir fully taps into Harrowhark Nongesimus’s character potential. She scours Harrow’s childhood trauma for internal conflicts and believably terrible decisions. The idea of putting Harrow on an isolated space station with God the King Undying and His Saints, each with their own millennia of trauma and intricate social dynamics? Absolute ecstasy for readers who thrive on interpersonal relationships between characters.

In fact, Muir does a highly entertaining job of humanizing God, but also raising many questions about how he came to be God. The King Undying––or John, on the space station––is evidently from our own bygone era. I’m fascinated by a character who is both incredibly fallible and very nearly all powerful. One who struggles with the dynamics between his Saints Undying, loves to cook, tries to be a father-figure to Harrow, all while yeeting us back to the present with one-liners like, “to prevent the Nine Houses [from] becoming none House, with left grief.” I did say there would be memes. I fully enjoyed the banter and piecing together the timeline of necromancy over John’s ten thousand years; however, this is where the plot and world building started to get wobbly.

Many readers I spoke to about Gideon the Ninth agreed that it was a book that made you work. I didn’t feel like I fully knew what was going on until one hundred pages in. The world building is almost excessively immersive, not explaining, but constantly referring to past events and religious rites and incredibly important plot points that don’t yet make sense. My hope was that this would become easier to navigate in Harrow the Ninth. Instead, I felt like it got more tedious.

For example, there was a highly enjoyable murder plot in the middle of the book. Yes, the thin broth that I mentioned in the beginning of the review. Truly an ingenious murder attempt, worthy of Agatha Christie herself. I won’t spoil anything else, because everyone deserves to be fully surprised by that scene. However, then that scene sort of just… ends. That conflict ends for another two hundred pages, before being (sort of) reconnected to the ending.

And I really struggled with the ending of Harrow the Ninth. I cannot remember the last book where I genuinely closed it and thought Do I… know how this book ended? No??? The last one hundred pages feel like a surreal info-dump of ten different characters’ secret plans, which they’ve been plotting for one hundred years. And while the narrators are in the dark about these plans, so it makes sense that the reader might be confused, too, it was just too overwhelming. There were confusing, unsatisfying plot twists. Too many circumstances didn’t make sense. And oh, I wanted them to. I wanted them to make sense so badly. I love a good, unreliable narrator. But this was just taking it too far.

What makes a good ending? While many might disagree, I liked the ending of Gideon the Ninth, because it crushed my heart into dust. It felt like everything was leading up to that inevitable end, and yet it still caught me completely off guard. The ending of Harrow made me feel like nothing was resolved, but without the adrenaline rush of a cliffhanger. For a cliffhanger to work, you need to be invested in what’s happening to the characters. Unfortunately, the titular character of book three was introduced in the very last act as more of a legend than a person.

I’ve had a lot of complaints, yes. They’re made out of love. Tamsyn Muir is talented. Her sentences make me want to cry tears of joy because of how lovely they are. The King Undying’s war cries made me want to raise a rapier in my gilded-bone hand. Her settings are ruin porn (like those Instagram accounts full of dilapidated buildings). Her characters can be making oatmeal on a space station and I will be entertained. But a science fiction saga needs strong foundations as much as horror needs impeccable pacing. I loved Gideon the Ninth. I can be on the fence about Harrow the Ninth. But for this saga to be worth it, I’ll have to wait for Alecto the Ninth, before deciding if Tamsyn Muir’s lesbian necromancers have it in them to be regaled by the King Undying Himself.

Carolyn Janecek

Carolyn Janecek is a Czech-American writer and soon-to-be MFA student at Colorado State University. Carolyn’s writing has appeared in The Florida ReviewPermafrost Magazine, and ellipsis… literature & art, among others.

Find her on Instagram @c.e.writespoems.