Why You Need to Read: “Harrow the Ninth”

The Locked Tomb, #2: Harrow the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir                                                                    Audiobook 19 hours and 51 minutes

Published: August 4, 2020                                                      Narrated by: Moira Quirk

Genre: Horror/Gothic/Dark Fantasy

            The Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus ought to have been the 311th Reverend Mother of her line. She was the eighty-seventh “Nona” of her House; she was the first Harrowhark. She was named for her father, who was named for his mother, who was named for some unsmiling extramural penitent sworn into the silent marriage bed of the Locked Tomb. This had been common. Drearburh had never practiced Resurrection purity. Their only aim was to keep the necromantic lineage of the tomb keepers unbroken. Now all its remnant blood was Harrow; she was the last necromancer, and the last of her line left alive, (3).

            Series are an interesting concept. They allow for the continuation of a story either with the same characters from the previous story, or with new characters, or both within the same world. At the same time, the plot (and, at times, the subplot(s)) continues to develop so that both the audience and the characters know what has to happen and what will happen by the end of this part of the story. Harrow the Ninth—the sequel to Gideon the Ninth—by Tamsyn Muir follows Harrowhawk after she achieves Lyctorhood and what it means to serve the Emperor. 

            Harrowhark Nonagesimus has achieved her goal (at 17 years-old). She has become a Lyctor and the Ninth Saint to serve the King Undying. However, she learns quickly that there are conditions for serving the Emperor; one of them is that Harrowhark cannot return home to the Ninth House. This means that her goal of restoring her House can no longer happen. Not to mention, Harrow must start training and using her abilities as a Lyctor as well as learn the responsibilities of her new role. The main one is protecting the Emperor from all threats. She learns about these threats as well, and Harrow is astonished to learn what they are. Overnight, Harrowhark goes from being in charge and knowing almost everything to finding herself at the bottom of the pyramid and answering to those who believe Harrow became a Lyctor at too young of an age. In addition, Harrow begins to suffer from hallucinations and memory loss. This puts Harrowhark in an even more vulnerable position than she is used to. Then again, it seems that Harrow was expecting this because she left several letters to herself so that she could remind herself of everything that led up to her current predicament. But, is it enough? Accompanying Harrow with her Lyctor training are: the Emperor, Augustine, Mercymorn, Ortus and Ianthe—all are the surviving Lyctors who train Harrow while serving the Emperor. Harrow is a very complex characters who develops throughout the story. 

            The plot is jumbled and confusing, but it does develop as the story is presented. The story is Harrowhark’s training as a Lyctor, which will remind readers of a combination of military boot camp and pledging for a fraternity or a sorority. While this form of training is brutal, it is the sort of training Harrow needs in order to survive her “work” for the Emperor. The plot of the story are the events which lead to the murder of the Emperor. The King Undying has reigned for 10,000 years; so, why and how would the Emperor meet his end? There are two subplots which are the main focus in this book. The first one focuses on the ongoings within the First House. This includes Harrow’s training, her missions, and the interactions amongst all of the Lyctors and the Emperor, which are essential due to Harrow’s memory loss. The second subplot is about the mysterious individual who is lurking throughout the First House. The individual seems to know of everything that is going on, but manages to remain unseen by everyone except for another mystery person who is unknown as well. The subplots are necessary for the plot, and the story will keep the reader(s) engaged, but neither one helps with the plot development. In fact, it is not until the end of Act Four where all of these plot devices come together into something more coherent.

            The narrative in Harrow the Ninth is very difficult to follow, but it’s supposed to be that way. This is because the sequence jumps from streams-of-consciousness and flashbacks (amongst more than one character) as well the points-of-view moving amongst 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. All the while, the reader(s) are attempting to figure out who the other narrators are besides Harrowhark. One of the narrators is someone readers did not expect to appear, but—in my opinion—the character’s revelation took too long to be confirmed by the author. I mentioned that the narrative is difficult to follow, but it is supposed to represent everything that is happening to Harrowhark. The narrative represents memory, trauma, and life, which are not always coherent, even to the individual experiencing it. In other words, Harrowhark is not a reliable narrator, but the other ones are; and, they take over whenever Harrow’s narrative begins to falter. 

            The style Tamsyn Muir uses in Harrow the Ninth is similar, yet different from the one she used in Gideon the Ninth. While the author continues writing her story following Gothic elements, she includes horror and science fiction in order to expand the world she has created. I mentioned Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in my review of Gideon the Ninth as one of the books that fall under the Gothic genre. I’m mentioning this book again because some aspects from that book can be found in this one. Another Gothic horror story that the author was influenced by as well is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The story is familiar to many people, but the book contains more of the reality of what was happening within the community and not just the “relationship” between the two “men.” Once you read both stories, then it should make (some) sense. The mood in this novel is one of anxiety. While it is clear Harrowhark suffers from anxiety, she is not the only one who is dreading the outcome of a potential end. The tone in this novel is a blueprint. Every character within this story was planning something; and they all carried it out. Whether or not the results came into fruition has yet to be determined. 

            Once again, I listened to the audiobook. Moira Quirk returns as the narrator and her performance and her pronunciation of the characters and the names were amazing and a huge help. It needs to be said that while the audiobook helped me with following along with the story, I still had to open the book (which was given to me by a friend) and reread portions so that I knew that I was keeping up with the story. So, in this case, I needed both the book and the audiobook in order to read this story. 

            The appeal for Harrow the Ninth have been mixed. Many fans who enjoyed Gideon the Ninth, loved the sequel. At the same time, other fans found themselves either torn or confused with how they were supposed to feel about the narrative. While everything falls into place by the story’s end, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the readers have more questions than answers. Hopefully, these questions will be answered in the third and final book, Alecto the Ninth. It should be mentioned that this book is a great addition to the horror and the Gothic canon. Harrow the Ninth should be reread so that the readers can group everything that happened in the book. 

            Harrow the Ninth is a rollercoaster reading experience. There are several moments when your head jumbles and your thoughts move in loops, but once you reach the end, you are left with an unforgettable experience. I found this narrative to be confusing and incomplete compared to the first book, but the story kept my interest until the end. Everything starts to make sense towards the end, so I suggest that you don’t ignore everything leading up to that point. Other than all of that, my curiosity remains piqued. So yes, I will be reading the final book in this series. 

My Rating: Read It (3.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The Rage of Dragons”

The Burning #1: The Rage of Dragons

By: Evan Winters                                               Audiobook: 16 hours, 15 minutes

Published: July 16, 2019                                    Narrated by: Prentice Onayemi

Genre: Fantasy/Military/Historical Fiction/Folklore

            And if Tau didn’t feel better, it had to be because there was still so much to do. He needed to go to Kigambe and test to become an Ihashe. Then he’d have military status and the right to blood-duel anyone in the Chosen military. The old law was the only way a Lesser could kill a Noble with impunity, (Chapter Three, Fallen).

            2019 was an amazing year for debut authors, especially in the speculative fiction genre. Without listing all of the names of the authors who helped elevate the genre with their stories, some of them are using “older,” “classic,” and “overused” tropes in the genre. However, just like how other authors such as: George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and Brandon Sanderson have written their stories mixing “classic” tropes with “unexpected, but believable” twists. Evan Winter is the latest author to incorporate this sort of narrative into his stories. The Rage of Dragons—the first book in The Burning Series—is an African-inspired epic fantasy story, which starts off with war, dragons and revenge, but grows into a rich tale with realistic characters, great world-building, and a believable society whose cultural and socioeconomical practices reflect those of our actual history. 

            Tau is the protagonist in this novel. He is an adolescent who is old enough to “Test” in order to enter the military of the Omehi, his tribe. He is the son of a High Common woman and a Lesser man (his mother ran off with Tau’s father, Aren, only to return to her family after Tau was born). Although tradition and status come from the mother—Tau’s surname is Tafari—Tau is raised and treated as his father’s son. Tau is very much aware of his place in life (servitude) and what his expectations are supposed to be (military life). However, Tau desires a simple life: land and a family with his crush, Zuri—a handmaiden. So, he comes up with a dangerous, yet practical way to gain those desires. Unfortunately, Tau never gets the chance to put his plan into action. Within one day, Tau loses all he holds dear to him and he must flee from his home before he is executed. From that day, Tau is consumed with anger and a new plan: to become an Ihashe warrior, the best one in living memory. After arriving in the capital—and barely surviving the Testing—Tau becomes an Ihashe Initiate and is placed in a Scale (or Unit) led by Umgondisi (Captain or General) Jayyed Ayim—a former adviser to the Guardian Council—who has a special interest in Tau and the other Initiates in his Scale. It is this moment when Tau decides to go by his father’s surname, Solarin. Throughout his training, Tau works harder than any other Initiate, honing his growing anger into his weapons training. He is not alone during the training. He is accompanied by: Hadith, who is known for his strategic planning; Uduak, a huge Initiate who is more aware of Tau’s anger than anyone else; and, Zuri, an Initiate of the Gifted—a female whose powers can call dragons. Throughout the novel, Tau becomes the warrior he wants to be and gets closer and closer to his goal towards vengeance. However, Tau’s anger remains within him and he lacks both an outlet and a support system for his grief and his anger. His companions keep him grounded, but how long will these characters stand with Tau knowing his anger can burst into a fit of rage at any moment? 

            The plot of this novel is Tau’s path to take revenge on those who left him with nothing. As much as this sounds like the trope of “the son getting revenge for his father’s death,” Tau neither finds a mentor nor finds companionship within his Scale. Instead, Tau isolates himself as much as possible from other people and focuses on his training instead of his raging emotions and how those could affect his fighting techniques while doing drills with his Scale. Some readers will notice that Tau’s method of dealing with his emotions can lead Tau to having a mental breakdown. There are two main subplots in this novel. The first one is Tau’s training. The author is not only writing a story about one’s path towards vengeance, but also a fantasy story which is influenced heavily in military history and strategy. As Tau goes through his training, both Tau and the readers learn about fighting stances, strategic planning and battle formations, all of which are practiced and exercised over and over throughout the narrative. This subplot serves as a device for time. It’s going to take years for Tau to become the warrior he wants to become, and the length of training all of the Initiates undergo makes the story more realistic. The second subplot is the division between the Omehi and the Xiddeen, and between the Nobles and the Lessers of the Omehi. For almost 200 years (and since the Omehi landed on the beach), both the Omehi and the Xiddeen have been at war. Recent events have caused rumors of a potential truce between the two warring tribes. However, after fighting for generations, what other lifestyle could await the armies? Will they lose their purpose? As for the division between the Nobles and the Lessers, Tau is proof that such unions are possible. Socioeconomic status is a constant universal issue and theme in human history and culture. When the truce promises to bring an end to the division between Lessers and Nobles, which group from which tribe will rebel and which one will comply? These subplots are necessary for the plot because they embellish the world-building in the story and remind readers of Tau’s initial reasons for joining the army. The plot develops at an appropriate pace; and, the subplots are necessary for the plot because they are “breaks” from the military aspect of the story which are as severe as the issues on the Homefront. 

            The narrative is told in first person point-of-view in present time. With the exception of the prologue, the epilogue, and a handful of chapters in between, the narrative is told from Tau’s viewpoint. Tau’s hardships, training and motivations are written in sequence with his stream-of-consciousness so that readers know what he is thinking and experiencing with his actions, concurrently. The change of characters’ P.O.V. demonstrate not only how Tau presents himself to those around him, but also presents the conflicts the other characters are dealing with at the same time (hint: they’re based on the subplots). While Tau is a ticking timebomb, he is a reliable narrator. The narrative is well-written—even with the jumps in the P.O.V.s—and they can be followed by the readers. 

            The style Evan Winter uses in his novel focuses on the history of violence between two conflicting sides. The use of power, strength and abilities in the author’s writing is part of his central theme of violence. Yes, this story is influenced by African history and folklore, but the violence and the emotions can originate from any individual throughout the world past and present. The military aspect of the story will remind readers that this is an epic military fantasy, not just a story containing traditional fantasy tropes. The mood in The Rage of Dragons is one of anger and warfare which is expressed and reflected amongst all of the characters in the author’s world. The tone is how the elements that make up the mood are dealt with by these characters; should they find a truce or submit to their unstable emotions and desires? The mood matches the tone in the themes of war, violence and division. 

            The appeal for The Rage of Dragons have been positive. The debut novel has been called “one of the best fantasy books of 2019” by several critics. And, it was one of my favorite speculative books of 2019! Any readers who are fans of world-building, magic and dragons will enjoy this book. Fans of military fantasy will enjoy this story, too. I listened to the audiobook of this novel and Prentice Onayemi’s performance and narration was the best choice for this book. This is because both his accent and his pronunciation of the words and the terminology made the story more realistic. It does take some getting used to, but the audiobook is worth listening to. There are some concerns by a few readers about the use of “worn out fantasy tropes.” My answer to that is Tau’s story starts down that route, but the focus shifts towards something else, which foreshadows future events forthcoming in the sequel, The Fires of Vengeance. Only Evan Winter knows which tropes he’ll stick with and which ones he’ll twist. 

            The Rage of Dragons is the latest work of fantasy that combines dragons with African influences. What starts off as a trope for one individual’s vengeance evolves into a military story about the struggles for power and the purpose of war. The idea that war can be used for world-building is nothing new. However, the emotional toll of the training and the fighting in a war within a corrupted society containing dragons will remind fantasy fans of one or two popular series. That being said, Evan Winter gifted fantasy fans with an action-packed military tale that should not be missed. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).