The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'Harrow the Ninth' by Tamsyn Muir Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'Harrow the Ninth' by Tamsyn Muir Review

Alexander Wallace opens the locked tomb.
Tamsyn Muir is indisputably one of fantasy’s rising stars. Gideon the Ninth wowed the genre commentariat and was nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. In 2020, she released the much-anticipated sequel to that book, Harrow the Ninth, which has likewise been nominated for this year’s award.

I will start by saying that Gideon the Ninth is essential to understand this book; it is a direct sequel.

The universe of the Locked Tomb series (as it is formally called -it was once a trilogy, but it has now been announced there will be at least two more books) is a very odd one. The best comparison I have is Warhammer 40,000, with a whole panoply of magical abilities coexisting with an interplanetary civilization. Harrowhark ‘Harrow’ Nonagesimus, your protagonist, is trained as a necromancer who makes any number of constructs out of bone. There is a God-Emperor, with shady deeds in his past. There is an arcane political system that has grown up around that God-Emperor. There is the odd use of ancient names, stripped of their real-world context (‘Canaan House’ was particularly odd to me). There is the omnipresence of environments that feel downright gothic, even if they’re on space stations (and a lot of the novel is set on space stations). It’s an arcane mixture of magic and technology that I’ve only seen in this series, Warhammer 40,000, and Yoon Ha Lee’s novel Ninefox Gambit.

In terms of the writing - Muir is masterful at putting sentences together. There is a very real grace here, one that vivifies every event that she depicts. It is a prose, though, that has its weaknesses at some points. In some places, the horror of the situation is undercut by a casualness in narration that proves jarring; fortunately, it is not as bad in this regard as the first book in the series.

In regards to its plotting, the best word I can conjure to describe it is ‘convoluted.’ It’s not a bad thing, necessarily; it’s a plot that certainly has many surprises. This is a book that, in all likelihood, you will not understand upon first reading (I had to use Wikipedia for some clarifications after I finished it). The narrative is divided into two sections, one in third person, and one in the more intimate yet also somewhat confounding second person. The second person sections are done refreshingly well; you are Harrow there, in a way that is used by the best video games to provide immersion.

Harrow the Ninth is not an easy book to read or to understand. It is the most unabashedly ‘literary’ book of the Hugo nominees I’ve read thus far (this may change). But it is certainly an experience, one worth having, so if you’re up for a challenge I recommend it to you (after Gideon the Ninth, of course).

The 2021 Hugo Nominees: Reviews
'Finna' by Nino Cipri
'Ring Shout' by P. Djèlí Clark
'Piranesi' by Susanna Clarke
'Upright Women Wanted' by Sarah Gailey
'Come Tumbling Down' by Seanan McGuire
'Riot Baby' by Tochi Onyebuchi
'Black Sun' by Rebecca Roanhorse
'The Empress of Salt and Fortune' by Nghi Vo
'Network Effect' by Martha Wells

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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