RogerBW's Blog

Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir 31 August 2020

2020 fantasy, second of a trilogy. Harrowhark is now an imperial Lyctor, more or less. Which means she gets to fight an unwinnable battle with profoundly unreliable allies.

I normally dislike books in second-person voice. But this is a book which uses first (singular and plural), second, and third, and I loved it… because there is a reason for all that messing about with grammar. The person saying "you" is not just a different sort of narrator, it's an actual character who has a reason for recounting these events in this way.

But as to why that's happening… Well. The narrative is also bouncing back and forth in time – again, for a reason – but some of that is recounting of events from the first book, only they're not those events. There are major differences. And there's a reason for that too.

Discovering why all those stylistic weirdnesses are, in this desperately rare case, actually justified is one of the great pleasures of this book, so I'll just say that even if like me you normally prefer stories told in a single voice and chronological order it's worth persisting with this one.

My word, though, you would be completely lost without knowing what went on in book one. What would with a lesser author be a recap of What Has Gone Before is something much subtler. It's important that you know who the returning characters are before you're introduced to them here.

Her paste-blond hair fell lankly over a face that should have been beautiful and over shoulders that should have been exquisite, but only contributed to the general impression of a wax figure in a pink dolly dress. You had never been given the option to play with dolls, but given hindsight you could not see yourself ever volunteering to have done so.

While many people would disagree, I found the first book thoroughly in the YA style, particularly given the factions with their standard personality types, pairs of people from each faction competing, and heroine from the underdog faction; but there was at least a pleasant subversion of the usual tropes. This book uses that as a launch-pad and is pure subversion.

Ianthe looked at you; her blue-and-brown eyes were beatific. "Harry," she said, and she said it tenderly, "have you never read a trashy novel in which the hero gets a life-affirming change of clothes and some makeup, and then goes to the party and everyone says things like, 'By the Emperor's bones! But you're beautiful,' or, 'This is the first time I have ever truly seen you,' and if the hero's a necromancer it'll be described like, 'His frailty made his unearthly handsomeness all the more ephemeral,' et cetera, et cetera, the word mewled fifteen pages later, the word nipple one page after that?"

You said emphatically: "No."

"Then we have no shared point of reference."

Gideon was a very good bad book, sloppy and self-indulgent but lots of fun. Harrow is absolutely not more of the same; it is a consciously "literary" book that's still great fun to read, because rather than losing itself up its own artistic stylings there are characters and a plot as well. The ending is rather abrupt, though. I very much look forward to Alecto.

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Previous in series: Gideon the Ninth | Series: The Locked Tomb | Next in series: Nona the Ninth

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