In which I enjoy the odd, grotesque, confusing journey through parts 1 and 2 of one of the year’s most talked-about fantasy series
You have probably heard about these two books; Vox is collaboratively reading them these months. They’re the “lesbian necromancers in space” books. What else does anyone really need to say?
People don’t just love these books, they seem to feel an allegiance to them, which I understand, both because I understand obsessive fandom and because Gideon and Harrow the Ninth deserve to be loved. They are not inherently lovable. The writing is gutsy, raw and weird. The stories are as grotesque as the tagline suggests, the main characters swoop around in black robes with gray skull masks painted on their faces, and there’s a lot of ritualistic daubing of blood and shuffling of bones; the plotting is twisted, macabre, and occasionally impossible to follow; and the books like to break your heart. Tamsyn Muir makes a lot of choices that would tank other books. She does things you’re not supposed to do. And she does it with panache and enormous heart; creating one of the most viscerally satisfying and infuriating duos of heroines this side of YA fiction.
For me, Muir’s formula worked perfectly all the way through Gideon the Ninth, the first book in the series. It’s when I got into Harrow the Ninth that I hit the struggle.
About ~30% of the way through Harrow the Ninth, one of the characters delivers this lecture:
“…ghosts and spirits are as good a place as any to begin. You might say I like to follow energy trails back to their source. Revenants in particular are fun that way. Resurrection Beasts feed like revenants; they find thalergenic planets and guzzle them up wholesale, crack them open like clams, and take the soul for meat. Then they turn all that remnant thalergy into what we call the corpus, or the hive, and the thanergy — the dead clam itself — for armour. You can ask the Saint of Duty about the thanergy transfer…when you look at a revenant on this side, what you’re seeing is the thanergy mass that it’s gathered. Usually revenants can only inhabit things connected to them in life — the best and most desirable would be its own corpse or skeleton, or planet if you’re an RB: you’ve formed a bond with that thing through habit and genetics; it’s your soul’s preferred housing. Unfortunately, apopneumatic shock makes most of us do a blind dash away from the site of our deaths — Resurrection Beasts included.”
This monologue continues, exactly like this, for several more indefatigable pages. When I was in middle school, my online fantasy writers’ groups had a word for this sin: info dump. The first two thirds of this book are as stagnant as unmoving space. Muir waxes for paragraphs about the exact pattern of bone inlay in the floor of a relatively insignificant room. I finally understand why some of my high school classmates are still angry at Victor Hugo.
There are bells and whistles, from a writerly perspective. Every other chapter of Harrow is narrated in the second person by an undisclosed narrator. There is only one other book I’ve read recently that contained significant second person narration, and that’s Ann Leckie’s Raven Tower. Much like necromantic robes, second-person narration is a tough look to pull off, usually employed because the writer wants us to feel just a little bit watched, a little bit haunted. I understand the goal, but while it can be eerie, it’s also annoying. In Harrow, the second person narration probably goes on a bit too long before the speaker is finally revealed. Speaking of unexpected narrators, another mystery lurks in the novel’s point of view: the actual character of Harrow the Ninth may or may not be dead in book two, and we may be hearing everything from a second narrator who’s in fact a glitchy reincarnation of the first.
The chapters that aren’t full of second-person musings are alternate histories, comprising entirely new versions of the events from Gideon. These are the best parts, because they are funny and propulsive and also because I understood what was happening. The tense mismatch between the events of book one as we know them and the events of book one as they are retold by the glitchy narrator of book two is actually one of the story’s best and most authentic sources of mystery.
As if there’s not enough floating around unexplained, alternative chapters bear headings like “FOURTEEN MONTHS BEFORE THE EMPEROR’S MURDER”. These countdown chapters are not presented chronologically; they skip back and forth.
It takes a good two thirds of the book for any of this to start to hang together. Then, the threads unravel all at once, or more appropriately, several bombs explode soundlessly: long-lost family members reveal themselves, ghosts appear and disappear, a legendary warrior is resurrected entirely through the power of verse.
It’s hard not to love Muir’s storytelling, if only because her stories so totally upchuck all over literary and social convention. There are only two real sex scenes in these books. The first features a guy making out with a corpse, the second involves two old people having a threesome with God. For these reasons alone, I feel like we all owe Muir an intense debt of loyalty.
Then there’s the style. Muir excels at the broken, bared-teeth sentence that saves its humor and its violence for the end, and you never see either coming:
“Pride was swiftly becoming a planet you had travelled to once but no longer remembered in detail.”
“She had tasted hypocrisy on her own lips so often that she hardly felt the sting.”
“He had formed a violent passion against the heroic knight of the Seventh House; she thought it was nice he had a hobby.”
“He didn’t even look angry; he looked like an ending given human form.”
The comma is her friend, but the semicolon is her bestie.
The book is not glib, or not only glib, despite being gory. It captures the ways in which we — as young people, also as adults — run aground in our own affairs. The crackling and inexplicable intensity between God and his servants is exactly the sort of dangerous undercurrent-ridden, nonverbalized tension you’d expect between people who’ve been hating and loving each other for ten thousand years. While Harrow’s final resolution is, frankly, neither a resolution nor particularly final, it also delivers a plot that’s more ambitious and more encompassing than what happened in Gideon. Like her characters, Muir grows. Like her characters, we sometimes struggle. Maybe that’s part of the fun.