welcome to Harrow the Ninth
Are you confused? Are you angry? Are you questioning all the life choices that brought you to be reading this book right now?
You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. This is a hard read, but it’s rewarding, and it’ll reward you many times over — trust me on this one. Some folks will come through the book and still dislike it. I get that, but I think you have to reserve ultimate judgement until the end of the series, which will come later this year. When Alecto the Ninth is published, we can read it together in real time and then decide. Harrow is the middle piece of a trilogy that became a tetralogy, and it’s an extraordinarily dark read. It’s about grief, trauma, dysmorphia, and generally horrible people doing horrible things. It is also, however, an incandescently beautiful love story that ends with a (buried) gleam of hope. And it’s a mystery about a buried plot, complete with technical gymnastics and the growing suspicion that we’ve been lied to on a molecular level (thanks, Palamedes). Not bad for the middle book.
Before we get into it, we should talk a little bit about Tamsyn Muir’s training and influences, and I mean just a little, and just the important bits.
Like many emerging writers, Muir cut her teeth on fan fiction (she wrote a lot of Final Fantasy fanfic). If you have not encountered fanfic and want to sample some, just look around on the internet. Here’s one site, but it’s only one of many. There are multitudes. Some fan fiction is perfectly awful, and some is breathtakingly good — I’ve read a lot of it over the years. In a lot of ways, the writing of fanfic has replaced formal writing classes and proven itself to be a rigorous training ground for the crafting of clear characters and compelling story lines. The entire enterprise is a flagrant violation of copyright which authors have chosen to ignore: in part I think because it’s so pervasive it would be like trying to stop a flood with a broom, and in part because the writers are intense fans of the original authors and their work. The writing of fan fiction hurts no one, no one profits from it, and it essentially serves as both love letters to characters and a writers’ training ground. Therefore, you’ll see some narrative features the appear in Harrow that come straight from fan fiction, the first one appearing in the Prologue. We’ll get there.
In addition to drawing from fanfic, Muir draws from Homestuck, an internet graphic novel by Andrew Hussie that started in 2011 and runs about 8,000 pages. I haven’t read it, but commenters in the reddit threads have mentioned that Muir was part of the Homestuck community and that the story is structured in such a way that it needed a group working together to solve the whole thing. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Now the memes: Memes abound. I don’t know whether they’re in the text as Muir’s way of lightening the tone for readers, or to amuse herself, or that she would have used more memes in Gideon but it was her debut book and her editor cut most of them but with Gideon’s success she got more leeway...which is a long way of saying that I have no idea. But they’re heavy on the ground, especially in the first sections of the novel. So rather than me listing them and making a long installment even longer, I found a compendium of Harrow memes, obligingly complied by the clever minds behind the Reading the End podcast. Going forward, I’ll mention extra-textual references only when they affect interpreting the story. By the way, the comment under the cover art is a reference to this meme, which we shall let pass without further comment.
okay, let’s get into it
New cast, who dis?
If I had to guess, right now you’re angry and feeling betrayed. Gideon is dead and we’re stuck with Harrow, who is a complete buzzkill. At her best, Harrow is supremely self-confident and (borderline) abusive and cruel. She also distrusts everyone else and tries to compensate for her profound self-loathing by showing the world she needs no one.
This is a different Harrow — she is no longer the smartest mind in the room. She’s afraid and unsure of herself. Most importantly, she’s failed at something. She’s a vulnerable Lyctor, and something is seriously wrong.
The time frames are all fractured, as you will notice. There’s a reason for it, which will become clear in time. But for now, roll with it and trust that it’ll make sense eventually. Likewise, there are jarring shifts in voice: half the book is written in third-person and half in second-person. Second-person voice (“you”) is currently popular as a narrative device, but it’s a dangerous one. Most of the time it comes off as precious and self-indulgent on the writer’s part. Rarely — oh, very rarely — it works. This is one of those times. (Another is N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth trilogy.) There has to be a damned good reason to use second person if you want it to be successful.
Putting the two techniques together — scrambled timeframes and scrambled points-of-view — is a high-risk high-reward proposition, provided there are good reasons to use both. At the end of the book, we’ll have to decide whether or not breaking the narrative conventions works. For the moment we’re just recognizing it. Someone narrating half the story about herself to Harrow at some point, but we don’t yet know when.
What would make this necessary? I can think of two possibilities: Harrow has dissociated herself to the point where she thinks of herself in the second person, as happens sometimes to people under extreme duress (“you are going to finish this climb up this mountain if it’s the last thing you ever do,” you tell yourself, or “you are going to get through this funeral without collapsing because so many people need you now”), or it could be that Harrow doesn’t remember any of this, which implies a situation where someone who is there can tell her everything she can’t recall feeling, thinking or doing.
Which is it? We’ll see. Could it be both?
On to the novel:
Prologue (Skull header: A Herald. Time: The night before the Emperor’s murder.)
Harrow waits in her room. The Mithraeum, the Emperor’s space station, is under attack from “body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull” (p. 13). The station is very cold, to counteract the heat generated by the bodies of the Heralds. Through the intercom the Emperor estimates the hull will be breached in 10 minutes. He wants to protect Harrow but Harrow responds that she doesn’t need protection. Ianthe comes to her and offers to protect her; she refuses and, as the station hull is breached, Harrow prays to the Locked Tomb to survive, and goes “under to make war on Hell” (p. 18). She resurfaces (“Hell spat you back out”) to find herself in the hallway outside her room, stabbed from behind with her own rapier, and dying.
- The Mithraeum: temple dedicated to Mithras, a Persian sun god who was very popular with Roman soldiers and who is usually depicted ritually slaughtering a bull. Remember the animal heads that denote the Lyctor rooms in Canaan House: also ruminants and probably bovine in origin.
- “I would rather have my tendons peeled from my body, one by one, and flossed to shreds over my broken bones. I would rather be flayed alive and wrapped in salt. I would rather have my own digestive acid dripped into my eyes” (p. 14). Remember that I mentioned declarations that come in threes? Like when Gideon gives “the only job I’d do for you” speech (GtN, p. 47). This feels like something we should pay attention to.
- Eye color is important in regard to Lyctors. Note it (I almost wrote, ‘keep an eye on it’ but refrained).
- Ianthe: “Turn around. Harry, all you have to do is turn around. I know what you’ve done, and I know how to reverse it, if only you’d ask me to. . . With you and me at full power, we could rip apart this Resurrection Beast and come away unscathed. We could save the galaxy. Save the Emperor. . . The past is dead, and they’re both dead, but you and I are alive. What are they? What are they, other than one more corpse we’re dragging behind us?” (p. 16).
- So much information thrown in at once! It’s worth untangling in this early moment. Harrow has done something that Ianthe could reverse, and it would “fix” Harrow’s infirmity and make her a full Lyctor.
- “Turn around.” We’ll hear this again, so make a note of it.
- Harrow called Gideon “Griddle,” so it’s only fair that she loathes the nickname Ianthe gives her.
- Resurrection Beast: “a hungry stellar revenant” (p. 17) — the soul of a murdered planet, as the Emperor will explain in a little while. The heralds that are attacking the station are the Resurrection Beast’s “dead couriers.”
- Ianthe has visions of grandeur, of saving the galaxy.
- “They’re both dead” — who are “they”? Their cavaliers, of course, whom Ianthe reduces to “one more corpse we’re dragging behind us.” If we hadn’t deduced it before, we know now what Naberius was to her.
- Muir has talked about Ianthe’s character being based on the “Draco in leather pants” fan fiction trope. If you don’t want to follow the link, DILPs are sexy bad boys who sit in the corner and make witty cutting remarks while being sexy. Muir flips the script by making Ianthe a very bad sexy girl. I’m not giving you links to Muir’s interviews until later, because right now they’re very spoilery.
- “Throughout the Mithraeum, five pairs of eyes closed in concert, one of them yours. Unlike theirs, yours would not open again” (p. 17). Portentous!
- In addition to the traditional Ninth House prayer, Harrow adds, “O corse of the Locked Tomb. . . Beloved dead, hear your handmaiden. I loved you with my whole rotten, contemptible heart — I loved you to the exclusion of aught else — let me live long enough to die at your feet” (pp. 17-18).
- Harrow prays to the Body in the Tomb, the Body she’s loved since she was a child. (“Corse” is an archaic version of “corpse” and appears often in Middle English liturgical poetry, among other works. It derives from Middle French cors and makes both corps, as in military usage, and corpse cognates, as they both refer to bodies. This has been your etymological minute.)
- Harrow has some serious issues if she has judged herself and found her heart rotten and contemptible. Harrow is inherently unlikeable until you are cued in to exactly how much pressure she’s under and how very much she hates herself.
- “You prepared to die with the Locked Tomb on your lips. But your idiot dying mouth rounded out three totally different syllables, and they were three syllables you did not even understand” (p. 18). Hmmm. . . I wonder what those three syllables could be. . . hmmmm. . . nope, not telling.
- The narrator tells Harrow that she’s only “half a Lyctor,” which is worse than not being one at all. Something has gone wrong; she’s failed at the process of Lyctorhood.
Parodos (Skull header: 9th House, fractured. Time: 14 months before the Emperor’s murder)
In Greek theatre, a parodos is a song that’s sung by the chorus at the beginning of a tragedy. Therefore, this chapter is table-setting.
It begins, as Gideon began, “In the myriadic year of our Lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, our Resurrector, the full-pitying Prime!” (p. 19). The language is slightly different, but the tone is not; it’s grandiose, almost ecstatic. Harrow and her cavalier, Ortus Nigenad, are in Harrow’s parents’ study discussing the summons to Canaan House, where they will undergo the Lyctor trial. Ortus immediately tries to excuse himself.
The relationship between the two is . . . interesting. We tend not to like Ortus because Harrow doesn’t like Ortus, and everything in this book is filtered through Harrow’s perception. He sets her teeth on edge and every word from his mouth finds and plucks her last nerve. He elicits from her a particular type of cruelty and cutting wit that’s actually painful to read. And he expects it from her.
He’s also hilarious. Or at least, her view of him is hilarious: “Any jawed skull he affected became a wide white skull with depression” (p. 20), “She had considered him a walk-around man suit surrounding some quite good calcium carbonate, and she knew he considered her with an awful respect, the same type one might have for a hereditary cancer that one knew was on its way“ (p. 53). [For the record, although I thought he was an utter bore in the beginning, by the time I finished Harrow, I decided I love Ortus — he really grew on me.] She tells him that he has to accompany her because she needs him to cover up her insanity.
- Ortus suggests that she consider a substitute cavalier: Ortus Nigenad. (If you hadn’t figured out by the fractured skull header and the fractured time frame that something is very wrong before now, here’s your first clue). Harrow is mystified.
- First mention of The Noniad. There will be more. Enneameter is a real metric form (nine feet to a line — a poetic foot, in case you’ve forgotten, is a metric unit of stressed and unstressed syllables. In English there are six common metric forms: iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee and pyrrhic.) Enneameter is hard to write.
- A serving sister joins them in the study, but it’s not just any servant: it’s the Body. Harrow isn’t sure it’s really there; she’s been deceived before and doesn’t trust her perceptions.
- After an argument about prosody, there’s an exchange that almost gets lost, as Muir is wont to bury important points in distracting passages, but this one tells us a lot about Ortus. He tells Harrow that he’s completely unsuited to be her cavalier because he can’t fight. She tells him that she knows that, but she needs him for more than his sword, and he answers, “’What more is there?’ he asked, a little bitterly” (p. 22). To Ortus, a cavalier is nothing more than a sword, a weapon. He’s a poet, and the last thing he wants to be is a sword.
- The two halves of the conversation is interrupted by Harrow’s observation that Ortus is an outsider, ultimately belonging to neither his father’s nor his mother’s House.
- What more is there? Harrow needs him to help her compensate, because she’s insane.
- “’This isn’t how it happens,’ said the Body (p. 23).
- This is the first time we see this line. It ends the fractured skull chapters. Note it. It’s too soon to draw any conclusions, but it’s good to note it for now. This is also the first time we see the Body. Of course, this is the body that’s frozen in the Tomb. So why is it in Harrow’s parents’ study?
This is a long introduction and we’re not really pressed for time, so let’s leave it here and do Act 1 next week. What do you think? It’s a very different book from Gideon the Ninth, in structure, tone, and theme. Like in Gideon, point of view is vested in the person who knows the least about a given situation. Characters we barely got to know in Gideon play major roles in Harrow. You probably miss Gideon. I miss Gideon. I will tell you, however, that there’s dead and then there’s dead. Make of that what you will.
Until next week — I’ll see you in comments!
Here is a list of things I suggested we pay attention to.
Gideon the ninth
- Who are Gideon’s parents?
- Themes: inherited trauma, children paying for the sins/deeds of their parents.
- “Die in a fire, Nonagesimus.” (p. 47)
- Aiglamene: “Things are changing. I used to think we were waiting for something...and now I think we’re just waiting to die.” (p. 55)
- “You’ll do what I say, or I’ll mix bone meal in with your breakfast and punch my way through your gut.” (p. 60)
- Canaan House: “a House both long dead and unkillable. A sleeping throne. Far away its king and emperor sat on his seat of office and waited, a sentinel protecting his home but never able to return to it” (p. 66) — Why can he not return?
- “’It’s a grave’ said Harrowhark” (p. 68).
- The common prayer: “Let the King Undying, ransomer of death, scourge of death, vindicator of death, look upon the Nine Houses and hear their thanks. Let the whole of everywhere entrust themselves to him. Let those across the river pledge beyond the tomb to the adept divine, the first among necromancers. Thanks be to the Ninefold Resurrection. Thanks be to the Lyctor divinely ordained. He is Emperor and he became God; he is God, and he became Emperor” (p. 81)
- The Eight Houses worship the Emperor; the Ninth House worships the Tomb.
- First mention of “across the river.” The liminal space where the soul goes.
- The Ninefold Resurrection: we still don’t know what it is, but it sounds important.
- Echoes of “He was God, and became Man.”
- Dulcinea: “The eyes narrowed with intent, and for a moment the face was all business. There was something swift and cool in the blueness of those eyes, some deep intelligence, some sheer shameless depth and breadth of looking…. ’Lipochrome… recessive” (pp. 105-106).
- Palamedes: “Either this entire building was scavenged from a garbage hopper, or I am being systematically lied to on a molecular level” (p. 132). We haven’t made enough of the fact that something is weirdly askew at Canaan House. Palamedes is able to date materials that lie next to each other and are separated by thousands of years. Why has the house been set up this way?
- “’Down there resides the sum of all necromantic transgression,’ she said, in the singsong way of a child repeating a poem. ‘The unperceivable howl of ten thousand million unfed ghosts who will hear each echoed footstep as defilement….” (p. 151).
- Teacher describes the facility as a place where “necromantic transgression” took place.
- Ten thousand million is ten billion. That’s a lot of ghosts.
- Remember Harrow’s comment: “It’s a grave”? And Isaac’s comment that the facility is mega-haunted? Why are there so many ghosts in Canaan House?
- Harrow says, “I never liked that sword. I always felt like it was judging me.”
- Our first “ONE FLESH, ONE END,” on a book flyleaf, signed G&P. Who are G & P?
- The 10,000 year-old note that Gideon finds: “ut we all know the sad + trying realit / is that this will remain incomplete t / the last. He can’t fix my deficiencies her / ease give Gideon my congratulations, howev” (p. 210).
- Palamedes: “The problem with necromancy...is that the acts themselves, if understood, aren’t difficult to do. But maintaining anything . . . we’re glass cannons. Our military survives because we have hundreds of thousands of heavily armed men and women with big swords… Thanergy’s transient. A necromancer’s biggest threat is honestly themselves“ (pp. 367-8). Something provides the power for all the spells that make Canaan House run, but the power source issue is still unsolved.
- “ Just hours before, she’d wrestled Harrow down in the dirt, and Harrow had scratched until she’d had half of Gideon’s face beneath her fingernails” (p. 333).
- Gideon asks Harrow what’s behind the door of the Tomb: “There’s a blood ward bypass on the doors which will only respond for the Necromancer Divine, but I knew there had to be an exploit...” (p. 357).
- The note, “CONFIRMED INDEPENDENTLY / HIGHLIGHTED BEST OPTION / ASK E.J.G. /YRS, ANASTASIA. / P.S. GIVE ME BACK MY CALIPERS / I NEED THEM” (p. 368).
- Harrow and Palamedes realize that Teacher is a construct. A construct (a puppet) needs a puppeteer, but no one appears to be controlling him. Just what is Teacher? Harrow says later that he’s a prototype, but for what?
- In Ianthe’s triumphant speech after absorbing Naberius, she tells the survivors: “I knew the energy transferral didn’t add up. None of the thanergy signatures in this building added up . . . until I realised we were being lied to. What the Lyctors of old were trying to tell us. You see, my field has always been energy transferral . . . large-scale energy transferral. Resurrection theory (p. 382). So resurrection is about the transfer of energy. ““I studied what happened when the Lord our Kindly God took our dead and dying Houses and brought them back to life, all those years ago… what price he would have had to pay. What displacement, the soul of a planet? What happens when a planet dies?”
- Ianthe: “I’m interested in the place between death and life . . . the place between release and disappearance. The place over the river. The displacement . . . where the soul goes when we knock it about . . . where the things are that eat us” (p. 382).
- Eight steps: preserve the cavalier’s soul, analyze it, absorb it, fix it in place, incorporate it, consume the flesh, reconstruct the spirit/flesh relationship, get the juice flowing.
- God will talk about the Eight-fold word. This is it.
- Colum Asht is possessed by something: “He now moved like there were six people inside him, and none of those six people had ever been inside a human being before” (pp. 391-392). The mouths for eyes, the long tongue; it’s horrible.
- “’Gideon!’ he called out. ‘Tell Camilla —‘ He stopped. ‘Oh, never mind. She knows what to do” (p. 404).
- “Harrow said, with some difficulty: ‘I cannot conceive of a universe without you in it’” (p. 437). This will be important.
- God: “There are things out there that even death cannot keep down. I have been fighting them since the Resurrection. I can’t fight them by myself’” (p. 441).
- God can’t go down Canaan House. Harrow asks him why not, since that seemed to be the whole of Cytherea’s plan. “The Emperor said, ‘I saved the world once — but not for me” (p. 443). Notice he doesn’t answer her question.
- God promises to renew the Ninth House. He asks her to help him hold on to the universe for a little while longer. Or she can go home to the Ninth (p. 443). He offers her the choice.
- House of the Emperor, his servants, and his Lyctors. Lyctors: immortal.
- Seat: Once Canaan House, now the Mithraeum.
- Skull: no adornment.
- Planet: Earth
- Colors: white and scarlet, martial. Home of the Cohort, God’s armies.
- Characteristics: discipline
- Necro: Judith Deuteros, age 22, (Judith beheaded Holofernes), cavalier: Marta Dyas, age 27, (Marta=martial).
- Lyctor: Ortus, his cavalier: Pyrrha Dve.
- Specialty: Spirit magic, use of thanergy in battle. They siphon their enemies to strengthen their cavaliers.
- Skull: A Spartan-style helmet
- Planet: Mars
- Colors: Violet?
- Characteristics: wealth and flash
- Necro: Ianthe and Coronabeth Tridentarius, princesses of Ida, both age 21, cavalier: Naberius Tern, age 23, Resurrection-pure line.
- Lyctor: Cyrus; his cavalier: Valancy Trinit.
- Specialty: Spirit magic, “animaphilia” — lover of the soul
- Skull: Jewels in the eyeholes.
- Colors: Blue
- Characteristics: courage
- Necro: Isaac Tettares, Baron of Tisis, age 13, (Biblical Isaac foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice, Gideon Isaac foreshadows Gideon’s sacrifice), Resurrection-pure line; cavalier: Jeannemary Chateur, knight of Tisis, age 14 (ref to Jeanne d’Arc), Resurrection-pure line.
- Lyctor: Ulysses; his cavalier: Titania Tetra.
- Specialty: Spirit magic? It’s unclear, but Abigail Pent was training Isaac, so it’s logical.
- Skull: Wears a laurel wreath
- Notes: The Fourth supplies soldiers and necromancers to the Cohort. The Fourth has large families, since so many die in battle. The Fourth is first on the ground in war.
- Colors: nothing formal, but sensible brown works.
- Characteristics: Intelligence. Temporal power.
- Necro: Abigail Pent, age 37, Koniortos Court cavalier: Magnus Quinn, age 38. Husband and wife.
- Lyctor: Augustine; his cavalier: Alfred Quinque.
- Specialty: Sprit magic, speaking to the dead. Abigail is a famed historian.
- Skull: Wears a decorated headband, possibly a crown of thorns (h/t Ahianne).
- Notes: “Koniortos” = “dust” (h/t BMScott).
- Colors: gray
- Characteristics: scholarship, rare book librarian and conservatorship skills, medical expertise
- Necro: Palamedes Sextus, master warden, age 20, (Palamedes: genius Greek soldier in the Trojan War), cavalier: Camilla Hect, age 20. Second cousins.
- Lyctor: Cassiopeia; her cavalier: Nigella Shodash.
- Specialty: Flesh magic, emphasis on science and magic.
- Skull: Clutches a scroll in its teeth.
- Planet: Mercury
- Notes: the Sixth House developed the process of cramming numerous souls into a body. Purpose and application still unclear.
- Colors: seafoam green
- Characteristics: love of beauty, especially the fleeting type. Fans of the beautiful death and heirs with hereditary cancer.
- Necro: Dulcinea Septimus, duchess of Rhodes, age 27; cavalier: Protesilaus Ebdoma, age 39 (Protesilaus: the first Greek to die in the Trojan war). Rhodes: island in the Aegean, site of the Colossus, visited by both Herod the Great and the Apostle Paul.
- Lyctor: Cytherea and Loveday
- Specialty: flesh magic, with emphasis on the “beguiling corpse.”
- Skull: A rose in one eyehole.
- Colors: White
- Characteristics: orthodox purity, dogmatism, “White Templars,” the “Forgiving House”
- Necro: Silas Octakiseron, age 16; cavalier: Colum Asht, age 32, 34, or 37.
- Lyctor: Mercymorn; her cavalier: Cristabel Oct.
- Specialty: spirit magic, focus on soul siphoning. Also hypocrisy.
- Skull: Blindfolded, denoting blind loyalty.
- Colors: black
- Characteristics: devotion to the Locked Tomb.
- Necro: Harrowhark Nonagesimus, age 17; cavalier: Gideon Nav, age 19.
- Not-a-Lyctor: Anastasia; her cavalier: Samael Novenary.
- Specialty: bone magic.
- Skull: lacking a mandible.
- Planet: Pluto.
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