Forgive me, but Tamsyn Muir’s incredible debut, Gideon the Ninth, absolutely ruined me last year. The novel racked up a lot of accolades, and Muir has followed it up with a breathtaking sequel—Harrow the Ninth—that will disgust, amuse, and maybe even titillate you, and then break your heart all over again. And like a masochist you’ll love every second of it.
Gideon the Ninth is a funny sci-fi whodunnit with the indulgently manic voice of the best kind of fanfic, impeccable worldbuilding, and characters so gorgeously drawn you feel genuinely miffed when they bite it. Muir has a distinctive voice and she doesn’t take time to lay out the world she’s building. Instead, she moves at light speed and expects you to keep up. It can lead to a little confusion, but both the narrators of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth are constantly confused too, so the lightning pace of the worldbuilding actually works to form a sympathetic relationship between you and the characters.
The world is a distinct and weird one apparently set 10 to 20,000 years in the future. Some characters have existed since our time, while others have lionized the pop culture of our time. So memes and references to memes lurk throughout, and at least one character is revealed to share their name with the lyrics of an Evanescence song. It’s delightful.
In the first book, Gideon Nav is forced to be the cavalier to her planet’s chosen necromancer, Harrowhark “Harrow” Nonagesimus, if she ever wants to be free of service to Harrow the Ninth House. Gideon doesn’t mind all the protection and sword fighting the role demands; the problem for her is that she and Harrow were the only children on their entire planet, grew up together, and despise each other with the kind of passion that could easily lead to romance for a pair who were raised emotionally stunted by decrepit nuns of a death cult.
Their planet is home to a tomb that the Emperor of the Nine Houses wants never to open. The House of the Ninth has sworn to protect it, but it’s a planet of a lot of dead people, so everyone on the planet, whether living or walking around like they’re living, is in the death cult—or they’re Gideon.
In Gideon the Ninth, Gideon and Harrow travel to the first planet of their nine-planet system to compete with seven other necromancer-cavalier pairs in an effort to unlock the secrets of immortality and all-powerful necromancy. Then characters start dropping like flies and our narrator Gideon takes it upon herself to sort out who the killer is. But she’s also one of the most enthusiastic narrators in recent genre memory. This woman cannot stop running her mouth, cracking jokes, or giving her extremely frank, unfiltered, and deeply uninformed opinion. It makes the book feel electric—particularly as Muir relies on Gideon’s absolutely wimbo narration to hide all kinds of clues as to what is really going on. (Gideon may take a little while to connect the dots, but she’s great at observing all the dots.)
Harrow the Ninth takes us away from Gideon and focuses on Harrow, who is every bit as unreliable a narrator but with an entirely different voice, different opinions on everyone around her, and a distinct approach to the predicaments she faces. The book is a direct sequel—picking up not long after where Gideon the Ninth left off—yet in many respects, it felt like a totally different story.
Harrow’s voice is wildly unique—and while I still found myself laughing, Harrow isn’t quite as big a smartass as Gideon. Harrow the Ninth is also much more ambitious in its narrative structure. While Gideon the Ninth was a straightforward story set in a space mansion populated by the dead and those who raise them, Harrow the Ninth is focused more on Harrow’s journey and her work to sort out emotions so powerful she tried to give herself a lobotomy to lose them. It feels like a smaller and more personal book—which is wild when you consider characters kill ecosystems, battle Earth-sized revenants, and swim into a river of death that spans the entire universe.
Harrow’s story is split between the time after the events of the last book, told in a briefly disorienting second person, and the time during the events of the last book, told in a perfectly normal third person. Hopping between the two forms of narration can be odd, and honestly, I found myself slowing down a little as I read and wondering where everything was headed. The retelling of the first book could feel like a momentum killer sometimes—until it pays off in spectacular fashion. There are also some incredibly outlandish set pieces that carry you through slower parts of the first half of the novel, and by the halfway mark the book is just as fast a read as its predecessor.
The impulse with both these novels will be to speed through them. Muir has a unique and imminently readable voice and even when POV shifts can cause you to slow down, the books are still quick reads. But resist the urge, or do like I do and just make peace with the fact that you’ll likely reread them. Muir has created a fantastically nuanced space opera that’s so easy to read you almost forget you have a million questions and a whole lot of clues that could be answers. These are books that beg to be reread—twists and reveals occur and you realize the groundwork was laid chapters, or even a whole novel, ago.
I’m not a fan of tearjerkers, and I don’t like recommending books with potentially depressing endings, yet I’m gonna do it here. These characters all toy with death like it’s made of Lego, so anyone who dies seems very unlikely to stay dead. But these books are still about people born and baptized by death and Harrow the Ninth in particular is often an extremely entertaining meditation on death. You’re gonna laugh a lot when you read these books, and then you’re probably gonna cry. But the characters and world are so well-realized, those tears may just feel cathartic.
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