October 30, 2020

Review: Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the Ninth Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Gawdalmighty, I finally finished this book.

I had a helluva time with it. I'd take it to work for a few days, plow through some pages on my breaks and lunch, then bring it home and pick up something else. I started and finished three other books while I was slogging through this one. I almost threw it against the wall a couple of times, but I had just enough appreciation for what the author was doing with the narrative and structure that I kept on in spite of myself--and, to be honest, in spite of the book. This appreciation was intellectual, a reluctant admiration for the author's skill with her twisty, gonzo mess of a book. It wasn't any particular affection for the main character or the story being told. That didn't kick in until three-quarters of the way through, when the first-person voice of a character from the previous book emerged, and damned if the story didn't take off. Sort of.

However, one-quarter of a book does not a good situation make. I was let down enough by this book to re-evaluate the first book of the series, Gideon the Ninth. I'd said in the review of that book that I didn't want to be in the titular Gideon Nav's head--I wanted to be in the POV of her Ninth House necromancer, Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Well...sometimes you should be careful what you wish for. I got my wish in this book, and it didn't take but a few chapters before I started backpedaling.

The blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of this book's cockamamie structure. Harrowhark's story (her present story, that is, the telling of events taking place after the events of the first book) is told in second person, past tense. Now I don't have any particular bias against second person; at least not if it's done well, which this admittedly is. It becomes obvious that this is not second person POV simply for the sake of being artsy-fartsy (which would also fit into this story's crazy bananapants worldbuilding); there is a purpose and a personality behind it. I'm sure many readers figured out who this person was before I did, but two heavy hints at the end of different chapters make the narrator's identity clear. Unfortunately, this is intercut with a clunky attempt to basically rewrite the first book, while leaving out some important events and a pivotal character, all because Harrowhark couldn't cope with said character's death.

This unusual structure does take tremendous skill on the part of the author. I don't deny that. That doesn't mean I liked it. It seems to me the author was being too clever by half, and I wish she had chopped the half that involved rewriting the first book right on out. Also, the PTSD Harrowhark carried over from the events of the first book, and the fact that she is one of the most passive "protagonists" I've ever read--she is carried hither and thither by everyone around her, lied to and manipulated, and she doesn't do shit about any of it until we're almost to the end--makes for a slog of a read. It certainly doesn't come anywhere near "couldn't put down" territory. The sudden re-emergence of Gideon's voice is what saves the whole thing (to the extent that it could be saved), and it made me wish that the first book had been told in her first-person voice. I will admit this is the exact opposite of what I said in my review of the first book, but Harrow's chapters in this one just soured me on her completely.

There were other problems with the plot as well. After all the buildup around the fearsome Resurrection Beasts (the ghosts/revenants of slain sentient planets--see, I told you the worldbuilding was gonzo), they were dispatched...offstage? In a couple of paragraphs? Really? To be replaced by what basically turns into a Ninth House necromantic soap opera, complete with revelations about Gideon's parentage? Really? If these final chapters hadn't been written from Gideon's POV, the book probably would have met the wall.

So yeah, I was disappointed. Enough so that I'm not going to touch the third book with a ten-foot pole. Which is sad, because Gideon Nav is clearly the star of this show, and I wish she had been given more of a chance to shine.

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