Book Review: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Harrow the Ninth
Tamsyn Muir

Tor.com, 2020

So, the thing about Harrow the Ninth is that it is completely fucking incomprehensible. On purpose. It’s also kind of brilliant.

But like, here’s the thing. You don’t realize that it’s brilliant until after the fact, and the only reason I made it through the whole book for there to be an after the fact, is because I looked up spoilery articles and trawled reddit subforums for – I kid you not – hours. I read detailed summaries. I read discussion threads. I read theories. See, I’m the kind of reader who loathes being confused. Seriously, nothing will get me to DNF a book faster; it’s the main reason I was so frustrated with Gideon the Ninth. So, when I started this book and immediately felt myself sink into total confusion, I was like, fuck it, we’re going to Spoiler City.

And, well, that worked. Even all those reddit subthreads I was trawling suggested that this book really only works on a reread, when you understand everything and so can appreciate all the little hints and convoluted plot. And it’s true; had I read this book without knowing anything, I either would have DNF’d it within two chapters or I would have soldiered on while constantly wanting to claw my own eyes out. As it happens, I went in fully spoiled regarding the narrative structure and all the major reveals, and I had a blast.

Don’t get me wrong; I am still extremely confused about a great many things, though I have reached that point where I literally don’t know what I’m supposed to not know. Am I confused because I didn’t pick up on certain hints in this book? Am I confused because this book raised more questions than it answered? Who even knows.

That said, with my confusion significantly minimized, I was able to sit back and enjoy what makes this book – and this series as a whole, really – truly awesome. The characters are all brilliant: sharply drawn and utterly unique even when there are so many of them. Even in Gideon the Ninth, I never had trouble keeping track of the myriad of characters because they’re all so fleshed out and vibrant. The writing is absolutely fucking exquisite – sharp and erudite and clever and humorous. I love the way Tamsyn Muir manipulates the English language.

And then there’s the memes. There’s an honest to god “none pizza with left beef” joke in here and it made no sense but it fucking destroyed me. There’s also the homage to fandom and fandom culture; the entire book is essentially a “Five Things/Five Times” fic. It doesn’t surprise me that this series seems to be hitting very close to home for people who grew up immersed in fandom. This is why, despite my many issues with these books, I can’t help but love them fiercely, in a way that kind of defies objective analysis, because they feel like a celebration of the fandom nostalgia of my youth.

And there’s the queer rep, the very casual on-page queerness, and more than that, the complexity of it. Queer women in Harrow the Ninth are messy and their relationships with one another are not wholesome or even necessarily healthy, but they are given space to be complete and total disasters in a way that is rarely seen in genre fiction. All of Harrow and Ianthe’s interactions were utterly delightful in a way that also made my skin crawl, and all the implications about the sort of relationship Harrow might have had to Gideon was the stuff of tragedy and high drama.

So, yes, I do think this book is brilliant, and I think it’s done things that have never been done before, and I can totally see it spawning its own devoted fandom, and I hope it wins a Hugo next year, but I can also completely understand why some people might absolutely despite it, because a part of me does hate how purposely inscrutable it all is. Part of me hates the pacing and the unnecessary length, even as another part of me loves just getting to experience the writing and characters. What can I say, it’s complicated. There’s a reason this book took me nearly three months to finish.

But. At the end of it all, it’s a book that engenders so much emotion from me, whether it’s delight or frustration, and it is a book that has left me reeling and pondering and theorizing, and that is no small thing, to permanently embed yourself in a reader’s brain space, rent free. So. Here’s to a thrilling and equally mind-blowing conclusion.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

  1. Fantastic review! I totally understand why people have trouble with this series and this book in particular. I am someone who does not care about being confused as long as things click at some point, but even so, i found the beginning of Harrow a bit frustrating. I cannot wait to reread this because I think it will be even more brilliant upon reread.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      Yeah, I wish I were the type of reader who could just sit back and be confused! But I’m glad I found an alternative and decided to read spoilers haha.

      I think rereading the entire series once it is done will be fantastic imo! Once everything makes sense and we can pick up on all the clues and foreshadowing.


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