Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer of the Ninth House, Reverend Daughter of a reclusive dynasty sworn to keep the secrets of the Locked Tomb, and gleeful tormentor of her cavalier Gideon (who equally gleefully torments her back), needs no introduction to the many readers who lapped up Tamsyn Muir’s hit debut Gideon the Ninth.
All that Tor, Muir’s publishers, seemingly had to do to make Gideon a phenomenon in 2019 was share Tommy Arnold’s cover of Gideon equipped with her trademark rapier, corpsepaint, aviator shades and red undercut striding through a mist of bones and give it the tag line “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!” So fast has the Gideon phenomenon galloped (including multiple awards) that Tor’s pitch for this second volume is simply “The necromancers are back, and they’re gayer than ever!”
Yet Harrow wakes up alone on the Emperor Undying’s flagship as the newest member of his ageless guard of Lyctors, surrounded by the coffins of necromancers and cavaliers who perished during the trials so outrageously romped through in Gideon the Ninth. Surviving the intrigue that comes next without Gideon’s sardonic presence immediately at hand is as much of a test for Harrow as it is for the voice of the story itself.
Entering the ranks of the Emperor’s ageless Saints is not the glorious ascension it seemed when Harrow whisked Gideon away from the crumbling, cavernous halls of Drearburh to join the Empire’s search for future Lyctors and outsmart her rival houses’ necromancers in the contest at the centre of Gideon the Ninth. The memories with which she awakes inside the hospital quarters of the Behemoth, such as they are, scarcely serve to remind her why her face is clear of the painted sacramental mask she has worn all her life or where her black vestal’s robes have gone, and the sum of her Lyctorhood appears to be copious vomiting across the floor.
The two-handed sword the Emperor has given her (Gideon’s favoured blade, as we might remember from the first book, until Harrow forced her to train with the rapier for appearances' sake) does nothing but reject her touch, and visions of a young woman Harrow only knows as the Body are both a merciful comfort and an omen of what the Emperor charged Harrow’s ancestors to hide inside the Tomb.
But worst of all, the Emperor reveals, is the endless battle he and the Lyctors must wage against the cosmic beings known as Resurrection Beasts, which feed on the disturbances that necromancers’ manipulations of the energies of life and death have caused. Impossible to kill, almost impossible even to beat back, these beasts have pursued the Emperor ever since he founded his undying throne, and hunt down Lyctors with the same compulsion to devour all those who have committed necromancy’s “indelible sin.” While the mystery of what that sin might be is not put into words, we and Harrow know that the path to Lyctorhood both ten thousand years ago and now depends not only on the necromancer but also the life force of their cavalier.
Placing Harrow at the centre of the story allows Muir to revel in details of necromantic craft that readers of the first book only saw through Gideon’s disdainful—if eventually admiring—eyes. Harrow is an adept in bone magic, rather than the command of flesh or spirit that most of her rival necromancers in the Canaan House trials exercised. Coupled with her inventive and sadistic imagination, her proficiency in this literally ossified art is first shown off in the early pages of Gideon the Ninth when she frustrates Gideon’s escape attempt by mustering an entire skeleton army from a scattering of drillshaft dust. Here, Harrow turns a single thumbnail into a thousand bone flechettes to fight off an assailant in the dark, armours herself on dangerous planetary expeditions with a protective exoskeleton, carpets a shielded training room with a hailstorm of bone, and foils a rival’s plot against her life by pre-emptively poisoning her enemy with a chest-bursting meal of marrow soup.
Even then, however, Gideon rather than Harrow probably gives readers more of the necromancer’s set-piece moments to enjoy. Harrow spends much of the book processing the burden of the steps that her parents, the Reverend Father and Mother, took to make certain she would be born with her genius levels of necromantic power. A flashback strand dating back to Harrow’s childhood and ending with the Canaan House trials themselves reveals much about the interiority of her character when, we know from the last book, she and Gideon would have been exchanging cruelties throughout their adolescence. For much of the first four acts of the book we are seeing beneath the mask Harrow showed Gideon and the Ninth House far more than the outward Harrow to whom Gideon reacted, and how Harrow’s storytelling compares to Gideon’s will largely depend on which side of Harrow’s character readers found more compelling.
Yet Gideon is so far off Harrow’s radar in these viewpoint scenes that some of Harrow’s memories are hardly recognisable, leading to puzzle after puzzle as we compare Harrow’s present with our own record of her past. What happened to Harrow between those last moments at Canaan House and the letter that, nine months before the Emperor’s murder (according to the heading of one of the book’s intricately jumbled timelines), she appears to have received from her past self? Why does everyone, including Harrow, seem to believe that her cavalier was Ortus Nigenad, whom we saw escape with his mother on the shuttle that Gideon had tricked into docking at Drearburh at the beginning of Gideon the Ninth? Why does she have no consciousness of having ever interacted with the Sixth’s cavalier Camilla, one of their closest allies in the trials, and what does it mean that the man who has replaced Gideon in Harrow’s memories has the same name as one of the old guard of Lyctors, the very one who is using his ten thousand years of necromantic knowledge to engineer Harrow’s end?
Shot through these increasingly hallucinatory scenes, which seem to unfold as if Gideon had never happened (right down to Harrow admiring her cavalier’s perfection as their shuttle approaches Canaan House, when we know how much of the voyage she spent needling her companion over not knowing how cavaliers ought to behave), are flashes that might just reference a presence that Harrow does not even know she ought to miss, even though the reader knows she should. A “rubber-boned toddler with a painted face and very red hair” is among the corpses in a vision of the dead that immerses Harrow when she first enters the River, the mystical plane of necromantic energy where the Beasts run wild; another body is a woman in black up to her neck with curling red hair; the canteen coffee server in yet another timeline, where Harrow seems to have joined the empire’s Cohort of soldiers instead of becoming the Saint Undying we know she now is, has “lean, taut, muscle[d]” arms, a “hastily brushed crop of red hair,” and beguiles Harrow with “a firm-jawed, long, crooked smile.”
Certain questions from Gideon are answered as these visions rack up—how the Ninth House was founded, what its founder has to do with the Locked Tomb and the Body, and how Gideon came to be abandoned as a baby on the Ninth’s drillshaft floor—but overpowering them all in our reading experience is the overarching question of where Gideon’s presence has gone and what the story will do without the character who defined the last book there to steal the show from Harrow for so long. Only close to the end of the fourth act does one timeline’s second-person voice, which has been relating the most reliable version of Harrow’s present, break through into a first person that we eventually see bite lovingly back at Harrow in a very familiar way (“the double-entendres were hard to resist,” it tells her at one point, and certainly they do not come as readily to Harrow’s viewpoint as they did in Gideon the Ninth). It takes Harrow until the verge of death, when memory hits her “with the inexorable gravity of a satellite sucked from orbit,” to be able to articulate how she has dealt with the final events at Canaan House, and it is perhaps only in this fifth act that Harrow really picks up where Gideon left off.
Without her actual or metaphorical mask, and without as close a sidekick, this is a very different protagonist to what we might have expected from Gideon’s Harrow in full flow. Her closest companion for most of the volume is Ianthe Tridentarius, a necromancer of the Third House who reappears among the Lyctors after Gideon the Ninth. As with Harrow and Gideon, theirs is “not a connection formed of any mutual admiration; if anything, the more you saw of Ianthe the less likely you were to mistake her for likeable,” though the contrast between the Ninth’s severity and the Third’s penchant for fripperies is not as immediately vivid as Harrow and Gideon’s to and fro.
A moment when Harrow uses her skills to regenerate Ianthe’s severed arm is nevertheless a tender step in a relationship she will describe to the Emperor as neither romantic nor platonic, and the point at which her inner mask begins to break: as the second-person narrator tells her, “You had always been afraid of anyone touching you, and had not known your longing flinch was so obvious to those who tried it,” a secret that very few characters from Gideon the Ninth would ever have come close enough to Harrow to perceive. If the necromancers are back gayer than ever, their queerness is surprisingly of the pining rather than the brazen kind.
Where Harrow’s point of view does show what Gideon’s could not is in the dynamics of the magic and the mechanics of the Empire itself. Muir’s sequences of necromancy in action are a treat for any readers who delight in the sensuous descriptions of bones, blood, and flesh, of which the success of Gideon shows there must be many (“The humerus was child’s play, and you took genuine pleasure in socketing it into the lovely cup of the radius, the forked embrace of the ulna” is typical of Harrow’s extended descriptions of bone magic at work, if somewhat less gruesome than most). The metaphysics of how necromancers tap and manipulate sources of death energy and life energy, “thanergy” and “thalergy,” on bodily and planetary levels are more immediately part of Harrow’s consciousness than they were for her cavalier, and the anatomical knowledge she has had to master in order to create her constructs differentiate her viewpoint very satisfyingly from Gideon’s, who needed to know no more about bones and tendons than where best to slice them with a sword.
Neither did Gideon have to know, or care, about the interpersonal and interplanetary politics of this Empire’s power. The Cohort, or the army the Emperor deploys to turn planets into sources of thanergy, meant no more to Gideon than a far-off alternative to boredom on the Ninth and the explanation for the frustrating weapons proficiency of the Second House’s necromancer and her cavalier. Besides the greater knowledge that Harrow would already have had as the heir to a House, travelling with the Emperor and his Lyctors directly exposes her to the realities of this Empire’s system of expansion and control—a loaded thing for any work of speculative fiction to set out in a moment where efforts to deconstruct western SFF’s long-unexamined ideas of empire and coloniality have inspired so many critical revisitings of space opera’s traditional playground.
The Empire projects its power through the Cohort and the Lyctors, we learn early on, to convert planets’ energy from living thalergy to necromantic thanergy via a process which takes generations and permanently mutates its plant and animal life. “Better to ask the purpose of a Cohort swordswoman” (what Gideon had longed to be if she could ever get away from Harrow and her House) than a Cohort necromancer, according to the inner voice with which Harrow comments on one of her first lessons with the Emperor—but the question of who or what they actually use their swords on can no longer be satisfyingly limited to “other necromancers and cavaliers” as they could in the more circumscribed world of Gideon the Ninth.
Insights into the necropolitics of empire, though, are not why readers have come to the Locked Tomb. Over five hundred pages of necromantic intrigue, which regain Gideon’s levels of anachronistic snark once the narrative has caught back up with the missing cavalier (“jail for Mother,” Gideon retorts to a long-thought-dead swordswoman as they scramble to escape an all-devouring black hole, echoing Patricia Lockwood’s viral tweet about her cat Miette), Harrow the Ninth unravels the lies that have bound old and new Lyctors to each other, from tomb-like space to tomb-like space—the halls of Drearburh, the Emperor’s own spaceships and Harrow’s own mind. The shattering truths that lead Harrow back to the frozen altar of the unlocked Tomb set up the trilogy’s third volume, Alecto the Ninth, named after a character who did not even signify anything at the start of Harrow beyond the hints Muir has dropped in interviews (Alecto is “famously one of the Furies,” she reminded us while Harrow was on its way). Harrow the Ninth shows us its titular necromancer both with and without the central relationship that gave Gideon its charm: we wait to see which of them, if any, will appear in Alecto and who will turn out to be revenged on whom.
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