Harrow the Ninth (Locked Tomb # 2) by Tamsyn Muir
Gideon the Ninth was an enigma - a wildly original science-fiction fantasy set in the dark depths of a galaxy far-far away that evolves from a garrulous teenage drama about a sullen orphan who loves swordplay and dirty magazines along with her childhood nemesis who whisks her away to this ghost-house at the edge of the universe - into a tense, thrilling locked-room mystery with enough dead bodies, gore and blood-letting along with a lot of skeletons locked up in the closet. That ending left me an emotional wreck.
And so the second book that promised to continue on with that 'harrowing' journey was one of the most awaited books in the universe, this side of the galaxy. With Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir expands that bizarre wonderful universe, and am happy to say, this is a sequel befitting that mind-buster of a debut, and is even more twisted if you can believe it. No, seriously. It is brilliant and confounding and leaves you a bumbling, confused wreck. There are unreliable narrators, there is the Mother of all unreliable narrators and then, there is Harrow.
Anyways, the setting has moved beyond a locked-room murder mystery into a locked-room space-shuttle suspense thriller where Harrow, a newly anointed 'Lyctor' to the Emperor Undying, is in training to stop some of the unstoppable monsters who consume and gorge on planets, have a deep-rooted thing for John (the Emperor, silly) and is all set to kill him and his remaining necromancer Saints. There are a few of them still alive - along with the Emperor, having lived for more than ten thousand years with him. Chiefly Augustine, Mercymorn and Ortus the First. And the survivors of the slaughterhouse in book one, Harrow and Ianthe are mere babies compared to these experienced 'hands'. Augustine takes to training Ianthe while Mercy takes on Harrow, teaching them to survive the Eldritch horrors that descend into this spiritual domain, simply called the River. It's a war on several dimensions with the space shuttle hurtling closer to this impossible enemy and Harrow unfortunately, isn't at her best yet with her own issues crowding her warped mind, not allowing her to focus.
Because unfortunately for Harrow, the process of 'Lyctor' ascendance is not yet complete as this involves her assimilating her cavalier's soul into her own. And then there is the sword. Harrow is stuck with this huge double-handed sword, that seems to hate her with a fervour equal to her own. She cannot even summon the strength to lift it on her own accord. Harrow's memories of the events that transpired on the Canaan House are blurry, confused. She remembers Ortus Ninegad as her cavalier on the First House. And then there is also this ghost called Sleeper who is out to get everybody locked inside the House. Yeah, welcome to the Wierd Wild West inside Harrow's mind. A lawless, hallucinogenic warped version of reality in atmospheric gory detail that really blows your mind to smithereens.
For most part of the book, we are floundering in this lost landscape that alternates between second person narrative in the present of the gothic gloom of Emperor's Mithraeum ( Yeah. Why would we do that, huh? Despite this distancing the reader from the happenings on the shuttle, Tamsyn makes it work. Because we are, bloody invested in Harrow's future. We don't want her to die. Especially not after what Gideon did for her, in book one right?!!) and a warped version of the happenings on the First House.
Harrow the Ninth is a book about grief. And dealing with mental illness, to a certain extent. But Tamsyn's absolutely rock solid prose and poetic references allusions and analogies makes the reading a very immersive experience. It's a labyrinth of hollow grief, no light to lead the way as we read on - up until almost two thirds of the book when a faint light starts to glow at the end of that warren. The last one-third of the narrative is a glorious rush. Of startling revelations, shocking twists and mindlessly frenetic action. Yes - lots of bones, too much blood and a lot of psychic nuke-bombings as we rush down false hallways, wade through blooming explosions of mud, frost-laden antiques and even experience one of the most gloriously detailed sword fight between two of the greatest wielders of the rapier, in the history of this world.
Tamsyn sticks the landing - despite this being an absolutely dangerous ploy. Whatever Tamsyn should have built up on the revelations and foundations of her first book, she throws all that away. Choosing to start fresh, giving us a new set of characters. Chief among them being John Gauis, the Emperor Undying. We get a lot more insights into the workings of that greatest mind alive today - the God has his fallings. He loves his cup of weak tea and his tin-can of ginger biscuits. He loves a great gourmet meal. A man whose jokes are irreverent takes on pop-culture from a time, ten thousand years in the past. A kind and loving God, who tries Harrow's vast reserves of patience at all times. And then there are his Saints - the enigmatic Augustine with his false cheerio smiles, Mercy who is frosty and grumpy and cannot wait to see Harrow just fall dead, so to save her the agony of trying to fight and then there is the mysterious third Saint, whom Harrow calls Ortus. There's also this fascinating sub-plot between these two that sees a meticulously plotted murder attempt involving a soup broth and lots more. The world building gets a big shot in the arm, the secrets of the Locked Tomb being revealed in parts and the inner workings of the Lyctors and their history a major part of how the series is shaping up.
But all of this is distraction from the main plot. And I know what is that question rankling and festering on the top of your mind, since you closed the last pages of Gideon the Ninth. I am not going to spoil it for you. But compared to Gideon's snarky, expletive-filled outrageous angst filled 'red' outlook on the world around her, Harrow's version is a washed out pale pink. It is full of dissociated memories, the pain of guilt that eats away her frail mind, the cloudburst of grief swallowing her most basic mental functions. Gideon was a hundred times more 'fun' than Harrow who is intense, focused and a genius at her bone-work and necromancy. But hell, I love both the gals now. For a lot of time in the novel, there is also Ianthe formerly of the Sixth, who is perhaps a little jealous of Harrow and still believes in 'fake it, till you make it'. I am yet to make an judgement on this girl though. Still waiting to see how everything plays out by the series ending, Alecto the Ninth.
Harrow the Ninth is an extremely frustrating read. Nothing comes easy to you, as a reader. But my advice, stick through it all. The returns are worth it and it rains down on you from all sides, like a leaky municipality water-tanker exploding. But then, there is that ending again. Frustrating, intriguing and mind-numbing in equal measures. Harrow the Ninth is yet again a Tamsyn Muir masterpiece. Original, unexpected in all ways and despite being totally bonkers, Muir makes us care - making us slide through all that muck and blood and broth to get to that last door in this puzzle-box, for the answers. The Locked Tomb is not yet fully open, but we are getting to the bottom of this. Tamsyn Muir is making us work for it but I don't care, because I love love love the concept of these lady necromancers in space from a world ten thousand years into the future that is upside down mad and exceedingly dangerous. This story is far from over.