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The profound grief and terrible puns of Harrow the Ninth

Two critics spiral on how much they love Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Trilogy.

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One of the most fun things about Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy, whose first two volumes are the Vox Book Club picks for December and January, is how deeply and wildly the people who love these books love them. They are the kind of books that hardly anyone seems to feel neutrally about: You either despise them or adore them passionately.

I am in the second camp, and so is Vox’s critic at large Emily VanDerWerff. So as we turn our attention from December’s discussion of Gideon the Ninth to January’s discussion of Harrow the Ninth, I wanted to talk to Emily about what makes Harrow the Ninth work so well for her. Our conversation about the book covered second-person point of view, the trauma of dissociation, incredibly bad puns, and more. You can read it below, and don’t forget to RSVP for this month’s live Zoom conversation with Tamsyn Muir herself. And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss anything!

Constance Grady: I have a hard time working out exactly how I feel about volume two of this trilogy. Harrow the Ninth is a trickier book than Gideon the Ninth, in the same way that bitchy, conniving Harrow is a trickier protagonist than sweet basic jock Gideon.

First of all, there’s the problem of tone. Gideon mined enormous amounts of tension and humor out of the contrast between its lurid goth world and Gideon’s straightforward “it looks like a sword, I want to fight it” worldview and her dirty jokes. That’s part of what helps puncture the grandiosity of Muir’s worldbuilding and keep everything feeling accessible and human-scale, no matter how complicated the mythology might be.

But Harrowhark worships all the lurid skeletal nonsense around her with a religious intensity, and she considers boning jokes prurient. So the easy laughter of the first volume fades away: The jokes are meaner in Harrow than they were in Gideon, and darker.

Not that there are tons of opportunities for laughter to begin with here. Harrow the Ninth is very much a book about grief, trauma, and mental illness, all of which inflects Harrow’s distanced, unreliable, second-person narration. This book revolves around someone who is dissociating with grief so deeply that she cannot quite bring herself to use the intimacy of a first-person voice, whose understanding of reality is so compromised that she cannot trust herself to report on it reliably to her reader. Instead, Harrow pushes us away with both hands as we read.

All of which combines to make Harrow the Ninth, for me, a richer book than Gideon the Ninth, but one that is also much harder to love. I have to think my way toward appreciating Harrow, but I love Gideon shamelessly and overwhelmingly, because it gives me no choice but to do so.

Emily, how do you feel about Harrow the Ninth compared to Gideon? How does the spikiness of this book function for you?

Emily: Readers who have followed me for a long time and know I’ve never met a counterintuitive take I won’t glom onto will not be surprised when I say: I found Gideon good but hard to lose myself in. I adore Harrow and will travel to the ends of the Earth for it. It is honestly one of the best books I have ever read about dissociation.

My experience of my gender identity prior to coming out as a trans woman presented a lot like Harrow’s experience of her entire identity. It wasn’t that I was unaware of the events going on in my life, but it was like they were happening to somebody else. I even spent a lot of time conceiving of myself as a fictional character. It was as if the person I seemed to be wasn’t real, because, well, she wasn’t.

There’s a passage in Harrow that I have read to many friends who have experience with dissociation or other forms of trauma, and it hits all of us the same way — which is to say it leaves us reeling. (I read it 14 or 15 times when I first came across it, and I sobbed.)

If Ianthe reached out to touch your arm, you were afraid you might not understand whose arm she was touching. You were so afraid she might touch you. You were so afraid anyone might touch you. You had always been afraid of anyone touching you, and had not known your longing flinch was so obvious to those who tried it.

This passage captures so poignantly for me the gulf inside oneself that results from particularly traumatic experiences. You can be present in a moment, even an emotionally charged one, but also somewhere else entirely. I have always been fascinated by stories about people with dissociative identity disorder, because it feels like it lives next door to the dissociation I forced myself into to survive my childhood, and what’s interesting about Harrow the Ninth is that it seems to be in conversation with stories about people who have alternate personalities inside themselves, working to absorb some of the burden of life. Just who is telling this story? It doesn’t seem like it’s Harrow, does it?

But where many books would sensationalize this brush up against dissociative identity disorder, Harrow takes it deadly seriously. The voice inside Harrow’s head keeps needling Harrow, just a little bit, and because the reader has presumably already read Gideon, they become, in essence, a splintered identity within Harrowhark’s head. She’s so clearly insisting on a different version of events from the first book, and here we are, and we know that’s not what happened. Second-person narration can become exhausting in time, but it never does here, because we are willing the “you” of the book — Harrow — to process her trauma. The fate of the universe might depend on it.

Later, we learn the “narrator” of the book is Gideon herself, which is at once incredibly predictable and solidly satisfying. I will confess to a brief disappointment in this fact — I wanted the book’s depiction of dissociation to be more explicit, I guess — but the eventual reveal of Gideon as, more or less, the voice in Harrowhark’s head ended up having a real power to it.

When you tack all of the above onto the fact that Harrowhark is a religious zealot who spends much of the book growing at least a little bit more disillusioned with the god she ostensibly serves, well, this book is Emily catnip, even if I can’t explain half of what happens in it to anybody.

Constance, how do you feel about Harrow the Ninth’s literary bag of tricks? I never stopped delighting in them, but I would guess a bunch of people found them tiresome.

Constance: Oh man, I loved the reveal that the narrator was Gideon so much that I stood up and fist pumped. To me it was enormously cathartic to break out of the confines of Harrow’s trauma and get to spend some time with straightforward Gideon and her nonstop quips, and it helped make the rest of the book feel more balanced. The difference in personality between Gideon and Harrow is part of why this ship works so well for me, I think: Their voices compliment each other in such dynamic ways that I am compelled to root for them both emotionally and aesthetically.

All of which is to say that I am absolutely here for the bag of tricks in this book, and perhaps most especially that long extended spree of fanfiction tropes we get as the script Harrow was running in her own brain to hide Gideon’s existence from herself starts to break down.

There’s the trope where the two lovers switch social positions! There’s an arranged marriage alternate universe! There’s a goddamn coffeehouse AU in space, which I have been waiting for maybe my entire life.

I’ve written before that part of the purpose of AUs in fanfiction is to heighten the pain of particularly sad storylines in canon. If you feel really sad that Black Widow died in Avengers: Endgame, you can write fanfiction where she’s a coffeeshop barista in no particular danger at all, and you’ll get catharsis from that — but it will also remind you of exactly how she died, and how painful that storyline was to experience. The AU both soothes and hurts, and it intensifies your emotional engagement with canon.

Which is why it’s so interesting that Harrow keeps using her AUs to try to prevent herself from remembering Gideon’s death. There’s a plot reason for this move: Harrow has worked out that if she has no knowledge of Gideon, then she won’t be able to fully absorb Gideon’s soul, and as a result Gideon won’t be completely gone forever. But it’s clear that Harrow has also chosen this particular strategy because she is unwilling to acknowledge or accept Gideon’s death, because her grief at that idea is so overwhelming.

But the thing is, the AUs she keeps creating aren’t designed to overwrite the knowledge of a death. They’re designed to heighten that knowledge by contrast. So when Harrow finally remembers who Gideon is, she can’t stop crying. She didn’t succeed in creating a world where Gideon was never alive and so her death never hurt Harrow. She only succeeded in creating a world in which she dissociated herself from her own grief, so that in the end Gideon’s death hurt her even more than it would have otherwise. This long metafictional spree is doing both character work and literary work, and for my money it’s doing both incredibly well.

What is maybe less effective for me in Harrow the Ninth is the mythology. To my eye, this book suffers a bit from second-volume-itis: It has a lot of cleanup from volume one to take care of, and a lot of pieces to put into place for volume three, and it more or less pulls off both, but you can see the strain. And, in all honesty, I truly have no idea what is happening at the end. Something something the River? Something Gideon Prime?

With that said, the stuff we get in this book about the Lyctor mythology is incredibly rich, and Harrow’s reactions to the Emperor-God/John are one of the deepest wells of irony in the whole book. (John is exactly who I would be if, after a nuclear disaster that it is heavily implied I caused, I ended up becoming an immortal necromantic god, in that I too would spend a lot of time making pop culture references to properties no one else knows because they all came out 10,000 years before.) She is so reverent to him, and he is so clearly just some guy who somehow lucked his way into an obscene amount of power.

What about you, Emily? How do you feel about the world-building that happens in this volume, and how do you think it works at setting the stage for the forthcoming Alecto the Ninth?

Emily: I will be totally honest: For as much as I love the Locked Tomb books, I find the world-building so trope-y that I kind of gloss over it. I have to constantly keep reminding myself which of the nine houses is which, and I spent roughly the first half of Gideon bouncing off of the book’s “YA for Hot Topic kids” setup. That book got much richer in its second half, and Harrow is richer still. But for someone who should theoretically be an easy mark for (ahem) lesbian necromancers in space, these books sure took a long time reeling me in.

Oddly enough, for as little as I understood anything going on in the mythos of Harrow — which essentially tries to reimagine every heavy metal album cover as a redesign of a Lisa Frank original (I’m going to find the right comparison point sooner or later) — the world-building felt majestic to me. I agree with you that John is a true achievement. He’s like an immortal Michael Scott, and Muir’s blatant recycling of pop culture tropes and references plays a little bit differently when you realize that within the world of these books, they might well be literal holy texts.

But I also appreciated the sheer plot-iness of Harrow, in a way that resonated with the book’s deeper themes and Harrowhark’s journey. Harrow is trapped in an endless trauma loop thanks to a whole bunch of events, stretching all the way back to being raised by two people who would kill hundreds of babies just to give her a leg up. (It is never outright confirmed but strongly implied that Harrow’s parents were abusive.) And similarly, the other Lyctors are all trapped in this weird trauma spiral with John, one that leaves them endlessly hoping they can break free from his hold over them, while knowing that it would take a desperate, last-second, last-ditch effort to accomplish that liberation.

I love stories where the protagonists realize that they have inadvertently stumbled into somebody else’s much older, weirder story. I loved, for instance, the episodes of Lost where the main characters suddenly discovered they were trapped in the middle of a great game played out between immortal brothers who represented good and evil. Harrow the Ninth has some of the same magic going on, as both Gideon and Harrow realize that they’re accidentally Extremely Important, but not in the way they thought. Gideon is the literal daughter of God, and Harrow is ... well, she knows something very important, but we don’t entirely know what it is yet. The point is that the two of them, despite being trapped in someone else’s narrative, are going to blow up that story just by being them.

And isn’t that what trauma too often ends up being? When you’re ensnared by it, it becomes this ancient god you have to keep making sacrifices to, in hopes that one day you might claw your way out of its maw. But everybody around you doesn’t see the teeth surrounding your torso and, instead, just sees all of the horrible shit you to do stay alive. They feel trapped in a narrative you understand intimately. Trauma only makes sense when you’re in it; for everybody else, it’s an academic exercise. Harrowhark can try to study the other Lyctors’ relationships to John, but she ultimately doesn’t really care. She’s got her own trauma to grind, and that trauma touches off chaotic ripple effects everywhere.

What I love about anticipating the third (and final) book in this series is that I have literally no idea what to expect from it. (It is absolute torture that we have to wait until 2022 for it to come out.) I assume we’ll get the Final Answers as to what’s really going on in the world of the story, but I almost want to see Tamsyn Muir do more off-the-wall things like setting her epilogue in what appears to be, like, 2014 Boston.

(My fan theory: The seemingly random Harrow the Ninth epilogue is actually a flashback to a 21st century planet Earth, just before John blew everything up, and we’re going to spend at least a little time in “the past” — a.k.a. our present — in book three, possibly because Harrowhark has astral-projected herself into the past and has to figure out a way back to her timeline.)

UGH CONSTANCE I LOVE THIS BOOK COULD YOU TELL? And here’s another thing I noticed: I think Muir got much more confident as a writer between book one and book two. Does that strike you as the case?

Constance: Muir is definitely taking more risks in book two. Second-person point of view! So many have attempted it and so few have succeeded! And Muir pretty much pulls it off because she makes the choice to use it to pay off on an emotional level as well as a plot level.

Muir also appears to be confident that her fans are going to go back and reread as soon as they put the book down the first time, because Harrow is studded with Easter Eggs that only make sense upon a second reading. My personal favorite is probably the scene where Augustine informs Harrow that if he wants Ortus the First to go, “he’ll be giddy-gone.” Harrow finds this to be a nonsensical statement, but once we understand that Harrow’s brain is overwriting Gideon the First’s name as Ortus, it starts to make sense: Augustine is making a terrible pun on Gideon’s name.

What a weird little grace note. It’s such a bad joke, and it’s so satisfying to understand — especially coming the way that it does, nested among trauma spirals and threesomes with God and grief and dissociation and so, so many skeletons.

But I think that’s part of the joy of this trilogy, and of Harrow in particular: The way Muir takes the vicious horror of trauma, and then an incredibly bad pun, and slams them up against each other until sparks fly. The resultant tension is part of what animates this trilogy, and its mysterious backstory, and even the romance between Gideon and Harrow. It’s the space between monstrous sin and grief, and the way that the people who commit those sins and feel that grief are just people. That’s what these books are about.

Or at least that’s what they are about for me! And now I’d like to hear what they are about for you, dear readers. Sound off in the comments section below, and be sure to join us January 28 for our live event with Tamsyn Muir herself. In the meantime, subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

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