Anke reviews Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Harrow the Ninth

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Content warnings: Horror, graphic violence, character death, attempted murder and murder, body horror, gore, PTSD/trauma, mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.

If Gideon the Ninth seemed confusing, you will look back and call yourself a sweet summer child, as the meme goes, after finishing its sequel, Harrow. As the second book in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, published in August 2020, I was fully expecting to look at the Lesbrary’s archive and find it reviewed already—and didn’t. 

And to be quite honest and speaking with the utmost love for my fellow Lesbrarians and Harrow itself, I can’t blame you, because this is the most confusing, frustrating and downright amazing book I’ve ever read. 

A dear friend, who encouraged me to liveblog at them while I was reading, was subjected to paragraphs of “AAAAH!!!”, “wHAT?!”, “I feel like I’m having a stroke reading this”, “like a nosebleed in literary form”, “this book is the personification of emotional whiplash” and “what is going on???“, interspersed with memes, quotes and prose segments from the book that made me feel out of my mind, as well as wild theorizing about the story’s mysteries. I’m sorry, Elvie, I love you and cherish you and thank you for making me read this and letting me yell my confusion at you. In short, dear readers here: If you’re planning to tackle Harrow, find someone who’s already read it and ask them to let you yell your confusion at them. It will make the experience immeasurably better for both of you.

This is really just an attempt to emphasize the wild ride you will embark on opening this book, but honestly? Nothing I can say in this review can possibly prepare you for what Harrow the Ninth is going to throw at you in its 512 pages. It can be summarized, roughly, but that won’t do the story justice. 

The first part of the novel is told in two interchanging POVs. One is a second-person narration describing Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s ascent to lyctorhood that she achieved at the end of Gideon. This POV details her life in the Mithraeum and her interactions not just with her fellow Lyctors: Ianthe Tridentarius for one, in addition to the original remaining Lyctors Augustine, Mercymorn and Ortus, as well the Emperor Undying, the Necrolord Prime and God of the Nine Houses, John. 

They embark on an absurd (and absurdly funny), emotionally charged gothic workplace comedy slash slice of life montage counting down to the ominous event of the Emperor’s Murder in the chapter headings. It tackles worldbuilding, training, some friendly amputation, heavily implied necrophilia, cannibalism, soup-making and multiple assassination attempts, among other things. Some of these are one and the same. Readers also learn about the two primary antagonistic forces that John-God and his merry band of Lyctors face: A group of anti-necromancy fundamentalists called Blood of Eden as well as the so-called Resurrection Beasts, results of an ancient and extremely powerful feat of John’s necromancy. 

And among all that, there is no sign of Gideon. These chapters reveal plenty about Lyctorhood and the particular fusion that Lyctors undergo with their Cavalier. Harrow, interestingly, while remaining a necromantic prodigy, fails to perform in this regard. This also is the continuing thread that runs from this to the second POV the story is told in—the other part of the book, told in third person, re-narrates Gideon and the trials at Canaan House, but with decisive changes: Characters are dying in different orders and ways than previously, and there is a monster sleeping at the heart of the house. And above all, to the reader if not to Harrow, Gideon’s continued absence hangs like her two-hander. In her stead, readers find Ortus Nigenad, another Ninth House member, who is busier composing a verse epic about a Ninth House hero than being a Cavalier, which proves to be both a curse and eventually even a blessing. 

Confusing? Yes, and this isn’t even half of it. I don’t want to cover the rest, because revealing the big plot twists that explain some of the most pressing questions once the two narrative strands converge (and then raise more of them—this book raises as many questions as it does skeletons!) would spoil some truly mind-blowing “wtf” moments. Among the online fanbase, theories to piece together the answers to some open questions, speculation and attempts to fill in the gaps abound. Many point out that Tamsyn Muir’s literary wizardry relies on misdirection and withholding information to sneak the plot’s puzzle pieces in place. The glamour of the prose, the jokes and memes are just the distracting cherry on top of a much more convoluted plot around Gideon’s disappearance and the connection to the wider mythology of the series. 

What bears pointing out beyond that, since this is a Lesbrary review: even in Gideon’s absence, there is plenty of queer content. As in the first book, sexual orientation is a non-issue, but hey, if not even God is straight, that’s probably a moot point. My liveblogging at my friend Elvie included plenty of “Ianthe and Harrow should kiss—angrily” because in Gideon’s absence they are the main female-female relationship of the story, in which vulnerability and emotional closeness battle with Lyctor politics and the characters’ own agendas. In short, it’s a delightful mess, much like the rest of the relationships in the story, and more often than not it also made me want to transport Harrow back to Drearburh in a hurry to just give the poor girl a break. 

I am not entirely sure how to end this review, other than on another attempt to sum up the experience of reading it. Harrow the Ninth is a literary masterpiece, something that feels like a combination of dream logic, memes and humor pasted onto a deftly plotted narrative skeleton (pardon the pun). I want to say that Tamsyn Muir pulled out all the stops in both an exercise in worldbuilding and characterization, as well as connecting Harrow’s particular story to a wider world and the goings-on in it. But that would probably not do justice to the upcoming sequels, which are bound to be even wilder. 

Marieke reviews Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Content warnings (for the book not the review): graphic violence, death, and murder

This review focuses on the relationship between the two main characters and occasionally touches on other story elements. Gideon The Ninth is so many different things at once that it would be impossible to include them all here, and I highly recommend you check out other reviews for their takes–and also because the literary content makes for really hilarious reviews. For slightly more of an inkling you can check out my bulletpoint review over on my booklr blog letsreadwomen. Still, because I am certifiably shit at summarising anything, I will share the lay down as per @droideka-exe: “Gideon the Ninth is about a himbo lesbian swordsman accompanying her sworn enemy lesbian necromancer to a haunted gothic castle to solve a whodunnit murder mystery in space.” It is written from Gideon’s point of view, and is set in a universe of nine planets which may or may not be the future version of our own galaxy. Alright, that should do it, let’s dig in!

The book is divided into five acts, with Act One being the toughest for me to get through. It’s big on setting the scene, worldbuilding, and introducing the main players of the story: Goth Sword Jock Gideon and Goth Necromancer Nerd Harrow. It also comes with a lot of background story for those two characters and introduces a bunch of minor characters who we never actually see again in the remainder of the tale, but who are referred back to on a regular basis–so pay attention. Cramming all of that into Act One means it’s a slow start to a story that immediately picks up the pace and ratchets up tension as you head into Act Two and never lets up from that point onwards. So, really, this is just a general warning to push through if you don’t like any of the elements mentioned above, as you will be rewarded very richly indeed.

Another reason why Act One is a tricky one, is because it seems to give Harrow the upper hand in her relationship with Gideon. It’s stated pretty explicitly in the text that Harrow is keeping Gideon at the Ninth House (their home planet) against her will, as they have literally been fighting each other for as long as they can remember, with Harrow sabotaging every single one of Gideon’s eighty-seven (!) escape attempts. This dynamic creates a clear power imbalance between the two of them. This is always a red flag for me in any type of relationship, but especially when the relationship also happens to be the main backbone of the story. Again, this dynamic changes dramatically as soon as you roll into Act Two, when they go off-world for the first time in both their lives, and are faced with people not from the Ninth House. From that point onwards there’s a lot of ongoing give-and-take between the two characters, but I wouldn’t say that the imbalance is ever truly resolved: even if in certain moments it swings more towards Gideon than Harrow, that is still an imbalance. Still, that continuous back-and-forth of them adjusting their boundaries by using their words makes for fantastic reading.

Which brings me to the development of their actual relationship → there is no explicit (as in graphic) intimacy between the two, and when they are physically intimate it is quite tame in terms of sensuality, but the tension is always there and always on high. Their physical intimacy is similar to that one Hand Flex in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie: short-lived but with extensive ramifications and Lots Of Tension. It has multiple sources and is definitely not solely sexual in nature (if it ever really even is), lots of it starts out as unresolved emotional tension and most of it becomes resolved before the end– so expect a number of confrontations and corresponding catharses. At the same time, both characters are absolutely capable of edging up the tension even while they are resolving some elements: it is a wild cocktail, I tell you.

All that said, there definitely is some sexual tension, even if it’s not super explicit. One of the many reasons I enjoyed the story is because in this universe sexual orientation is not a big deal, and not in the way of the straight utopia where it is no longer a big deal and fully accepted and therefore invisible and just another thing in the background you can forget about. No, sexual orientation is not a big deal because everything else is already so goddamn weird, so you might as well be attracted to a female Goth Nerd who you also hate. There are no labels and no one ever explicitly states what genders they are or are not attracted to, but even so Gideon is clearly sapphic and this is never portrayed or perceived as being odd or unusual. Gideon’s sexuality expresses itself as her becoming distracted as soon as a pretty woman walks into the room, as her doing anything said pretty women ask her to do, and also her becoming fully tongue-tied and / or putting her foot in her mouth in those self-same moments. Her sexual orientation also expresses itself through her unwilling bond with her necromancer, who she ostensibly hates and cannot stand but is also bound (in various ways) to protect onto death itself and even beyond (I cry).

In conclusion, it’s everything you ever wanted, go read it now.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com.

Quinn Jean reviews Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Reign of the Fallen cover

[this review contains minor spoilers and discusses depictions of violence and substance abuse in the novel, particularly in paragraph three]

Reign of the Fallen is a refreshing and original addition to both the fantasy and the queer YA genres, a welcome departure from more formulaic and predictable novels that populate both areas. Sarah Glenn Marsh’s protagonist is a flawed, confused, intelligent and charismatic young woman named Odessa. Her already complex and dangerous life as a mage who raises the dead becomes even more complicated when monsters and unseen enemies descend en masse into the mythical kingdom she calls home. Marsh spends much of the first third of the novel explaining the magical properties and politics of the kingdom and populating Odessa’s world with compelling supporting characters including a Princess who moonlights as an ingenious inventor, a coarse and brash but kind fellow necromancer, and a sea-faring pirate mistress who flirts with Odessa incessantly. At times this initial storytelling exposition gets slow and somewhat tedious but Odessa’s grounded and relatable first-person narration and the promise of more action and development prevents these chapters from feeling too stale.

While the book is labelled an “LGBT love story”, Odessa begins the story with a heterosexual male partner, Evander, who works with her as a necromancer; it is quite some time before there are any more than brief references to any characters’ queerness. Thankfully in this fantasy universe queerness is generally accepted without issue and Odessa herself as well as many of her friends are openly attracted to people of the same gender. But the queer overtones in the novel only really get going with the introduction of Evander’s sister Meredy about halfway through, a fiery and strong-willed beast mage. Oh, and a raging lesbian. Her presence becomes the motor behind much of the rest of the story and she prompts both Odessa and the novel to action. It is worth bearing with the more conventional beginnings of the novel, in regards to both fantasy and heterosexual norms, in order to reach the chapters that blow apart expectations and formulaic arcs. The ensuing drama is compelling and well worth the wait.

As may be expected in a novel starring a mage who raises the dead, there is quite a bit of violence in this book and much of it, while often unrealistic, is graphic. In addition, a major character becomes dependent on a substance that leads to their life unravelling and mental state rapidly deteriorating. While the substance is referred to as a “potion”, it is a clear metaphor for alcohol or mind-altering drugs, and some readers may find it distressing to see addiction depicted in such glaring detail. The novel is to be congratulated for how many bisexual, gay and lesbian characters it features, but it is disappointing that there are no trans characters where they could easily have been included also.

For the most part, Reign of the Fallen is a highly successful merging of the fantasy and queer coming-of-age genres, and the second half of the novel is a particularly fun and interesting read.