Considering the book is called Harrow the Ninth, I shouldn’t have to say this—but Harrow isn’t Gideon. Except… maybe a little bit, there, towards the end, but that’s too big a spoiler, so we won’t talk about that.
Let me first say that this will be my thoughts on Harrow the Ninth as much as it will be on Gideon the Ninth. Not only because the two are part of a series, so it’s only natural, but also because they’re contrasts of each other, two pieces of a whole, which makes it nearly impossible to discuss one without the other.
The biggest hurdle I’ve seen people struggle with when they go from reading Gideon the Ninth to Harrow the Ninth is the loss of Gideon’s pomp-and-circumstance voice. But even if Harrow’s voice isn’t as distinct as Gideon’s was, I was sold on Harrow the second I realized how badly I wanted to understand her. How badly I wanted her to understand herself, more so. I never felt that urge with Gideon. Gideon was easier for me to understand from the get-go, very relatable and entertaining even as she carried her own ghosts, but Harrow was a secret both to me and to herself. This makes sense when you consider that Harrow the Ninth is more of a psychological horror/thriller than the sprawling fantasy/sci-fi adventure that Gideon the Ninth was.
Harrow is so wounded-and-lonely-without-yet-knowing-it that I gobbled up the first 100 pages in no time. Faster than I gobbled up the initial pages of Gideon the Ninth. Ultimately, I cared about Harrow so hard and so fast that you may call it insta-love (and I don’t particularly like insta-love). That, for me, was enough to look beyond the loss of Gideon’s voice – because, yes, I also felt that loss. Bottom line is that I could look past the loss of Gideon’s voice because I sympathized so hard and so fast with Harrow that it nearly gave me whiplash. I realize this is also partly a consequence of having read Gideon the Ninth and knowing what Harrow lost at the end of that book, but that doesn’t diminish its worth for me in the 2nd book. Far from it.
The thing is, Muir could’ve played it safe after the success of Gideon the Ninth – but she didn’t. She took a risk. For me, that risk paid off.
What Muir did with Harrow the Ninth is that she experimented with style – on-page style as depicting the internal state of the main protagonist. Not only is the narration split between 3rd person Harrow and a 2nd person narrator whose identity is only revealed towards the end of the book (and which will punch the damn air from your lungs when it happens), but Muir also plays with timelines and settings. She does all of this in the name of stylizing Harrow’s character arc.
Muir stylizes Harrow’s extreme trauma from Gideon the Ninth – and she does it scarily effectively.
Harrow’s loss of self and loss of memories is what makes this book shine, even if it also demands a lot of thought and attention from the reader, including flipping back several chapters to see whether your inkling of something is true or not. As Harrow doubts herself, you doubt yourself. As she lies to herself, you lie to yourself. Yes, Harrow’s voice is less accessible than Gideon’s was, but once you realize exactly why that is – once you realize it’s inaccessible to you because it’s inaccessible to Harrow herself – then things start to get interesting. Again, think psychological horror/thriller.
Muir weaves a narrative that is best described as this:
This playfully experimental narrative makes Harrow the Ninth a page-turner that’s as frustrating as it’s intriguing. It’s like jumping on a rollercoaster in the dark: you just have to go with it.
As for the cast of characters, there are less than in Gideon the Ninth, which provides for more in-depth character dynamics and development. I personally loved this. Most of the cast is already known from the 1st book. I didn’t have to repeatedly look up all the character/house affiliations and necromantic abilities like I did during the 1st book, which was a nice respite, honestly. I won’t lie about that.
On the other hand, Harrow the Ninth is more politically complex than Gideon was. This is because Harrow herself is more aware of politics. I had to consult the internet several times to make sure who was who and what was what, especially in regards to the lore and the history of the world, but it was all very interesting, even if it made for slower reading.
As with Gideon the Ninth, Muir is also heavy on the description in Harrow the Ninth. I willingly admit that I occasionally had to read her dense passages of description twice, even thrice, to really paint the picture she was forming, but you kinda learn to roll with it. Once you do, it becomes easier. Both Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth are the kinds of books that’ll take you 100 pages to get into. Like densely written classics. But once you’re in, the pages flow faster and easier. It’s a rhythm. More like poetry and less like a blockbuster. Although, to be sure, there are serious blockbuster-y images and visuals in there. Think Akira in space and you’ll be on the right track.
The payoff of Harrow the Ninth is worth the effort of Harrow the Ninth, is what I’m trying to say here, so stick it out even if you struggle.
I stuck it out.
And I’m ultimately so glad that I did.