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Five Times Harrow the Ninth Uses the Language of Fanfiction to Process Grief (And One Time It Doesn’t)


Five Times Harrow the Ninth Uses the Language of Fanfiction to Process Grief (And One Time It Doesn’t)

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Five Times Harrow the Ninth Uses the Language of Fanfiction to Process Grief (And One Time It Doesn’t)


Published on August 13, 2020

Cover art by Tommy Arnold
crop from the book cover of Harrow the Ninth
Cover art by Tommy Arnold

Harrow the Ninth is one of the most anticipated SFF sequels in recent memory, weighted as it is with the expectation of living up to the cheeky, bonetastic glory of Gideon the Ninth. After crafting an incredibly complex far-future with necromancy seeping out of its every pore, as seen through the aviator-covered gaze of one Gideon Nav, the second novel swaps protagonists and propels readers into the even gorier, more existential setting of Lyctorhood that not even Gideon and its trials could have prepared you for. How can Tamsyn Muir possibly follow up Gideon the Ninth?

By retelling the story, over and over and over.

This piece contains spoilers for Harrow the Ninth.

This is exactly what you would expect from a writer who grew up cutting their teeth on fanfiction, and a beautiful tribute to the medium in which Muir and myself and countless others learned character and plot and stakes—learning how to filter the world through our own lens, even if it meant borrowing other people’s characters for a bit.

And that’s precisely what Harrowhark the First does. She may not know it as such, but it is a well of language from which she draws: part spell, part cultural artifact, familiar and comforting to those who know to look.

If that cool ‘S’ we all drew in middle school survived the thanergetic death and resurrection of the universe, then why not fanfiction? Even if Harrow never names it, it is clearly her coping mechanism for processing the trauma she underwent in Gideon the Ninth—and honestly, whomst among us hasn’t tried our damnedest to write or read a version of that story where things ended differently?

One of those story versions is known as the five things or five times fanfic, which presents a certain number of vignettes teasing out the same scenario or question from multiple angles. What makes it more than just a list of retellings, however, is that often there is one time that subverts everything that has come before. I could think of no better fannish way to engage with Harrow the Ninth.


fix-it fic, or Harrow tells us a story

When Harrow the First can’t bear to be present for her truly pitiable baby (Lyctor) steps, she retreats into memories of how she achieved this supposed glory in the first place. Except—it’s all wrong. Ortus Nigenad, the Ninth House’s sensitive, sorry excuse for a cavalier, is who Harrow drags to Canaan House upon their summons. Ortus is who she squabbles with over keys and experiments and Teacher’s bizarrely sunny outlook on this whole Lyctor business. (Who else would it be? The only other girl Harrow’s age died as part of the Ninth House’s sacrifice to conceive Harrow.) This bleeds over into the present action as well, with Harrow staring down Ortus’ inky eyes in the mirror and pondering how at least that part of Lyctorhood was an easy transition; and confronting Ortus the First, the Lyctor who for some reason wants to murder her. As far as Harrow the First is concerned, this is the canon narrative.

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Harrow the Ninth
Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the Ninth

If you asked Harrow, her explanation would be that this is a remix. The order of events is the same, is it not? The Ninth House sends its necromantic heir and her cavalier to the First House. They are a mismatched pair, hiding just how unsuited they are to this trial. Something ancient and undead in the bowels of Canaan House starts killing off heirs, one by one. What about this story is different, aside from Harrow being the one to tell it?

After all, the most common remix approach in fanfic is a POV shift—telling the same story through another set of eyes. And even though we took Gideon’s impression of Harrow as gospel, it was still Harrowhark Nonagesimus filtered through the perspective of the person who spent most of her short life believing that Harrow hated her, and who had herself set them up as enemies as a form of survival. For all that Harrow opened up to Gideon in the first book, she played everything so close to her vest tattered cloak that Gideon could never have hoped to get inside Harrow’s head.


She even, playing by remix rules, adds a tantalizing new dimension to the story: She is mad. Though Ortus is a sorry sight with a sword, he can at least guard this secret—that she reads words that aren’t there, that she sees the Body, who tells her, “This isn’t how it happens.”

What Harrow would never admit is that she is, more pathetically and more earnestly than she’s ever done anything, writing her very own fix-it fic: railing against the cruelly immovable truths of canon, conjuring a version of events where the outcome is different because it’s an entirely new set of players. If Gideon isn’t part of the story—if she doesn’t sacrifice herself so that Harrow can achieve Lyctorhood—then Harrow doesn’t have to consider a life after Gideon. If Gideon doesn’t die, then Harrow doesn’t have to grieve.

But of course, we all know the definition of insanity, and it’s not having your frozen girlfriend fact-check your narrative.


the coffeeshop AU… in spaaaace!

Some of us sit down at a computer to type out our fanfic, or (in the Before Times) tap out an epic on our phones on the train. Harrowhark Nonagesimus performs DIY brain surgery.

Unfortunately for her, while the flesh-and-blood Harrow risks lobotomizing herself in order to erase her cavalier from the narrative, her traitorous subconscious resurrects Gideon over and and over again, as a series of familiar fanfic and genre archetypes. Harrow may have killed off infant Gideon in her version of how the Ninth House conceived their necromancer, but once her Canaan House AU begins decaying, all bets are off.

One of the book’s very best sections is an honest-to-John montage of Harrow moving through even more AUs, in an effort to retell their story in a way that finally won’t hurt. She is a poverty-stricken space princess at a ball, hoping to move up within the universe by catching the (amber?) eyes of Her Divine Highness. She is the Ninth House’s dreadful cavalier wannabe, Harrow Nova, supplanted by an adopted (redheaded?) necromantic heir and struggling to establish a place and a purpose within the House that rejected her. She is a lieutenant and chaplain in the Cohort, visiting the station’s cafeteria to try the lattes made by a certain grinning coffee adept.

Yep. A goddamn COFFEESHOP AU in our Gideon ’verse. We could never have imagined we’d be so lucky. It’s also, in Harrow’s way, the most understated AU that hurts the most. The others riffed on SFF and/or YA tropes, plenty of which have fanfic crossover, but the coffeeshop AU is specific to the medium. It’s a time-honored tradition of transplanting Marvel superheroes, or Hannibal‘s bloody central duo, or water- and fire-benders, into an environment that strips away their assorted powers and makes coffee (or tea) their love language. For Harrow the Ninth, it’s a setting that despite its interstellar skin is still blissfully mundane, where the absolute highest stakes are flirting with one’s redheaded barista.

But while Gideon makes overt or oblique cameos in each of these AUs, Harrow’s true purpose in shuffling through these alternate timelines and retellings is to access a version of herself that no longer exists. She knows as much, from the blood-penned letters she reads addressed from Harrowhark Nonagesimus (now dead) to Harrow the First. The work, she called her painstaking attempts to erase any evidence of what happened, but the work cannot stand up on its own. Which is why each AU also features that universe’s version of Abigail Pent and Magnus QuinnHarrowhark the First—each time reminding and then gently admonishing Harrow that “This isn’t how it happens.”


remix/redux, or Harrow stops doing the telling

What Harrow should have realized is that fanfic remixes are never about “fixing” the story. Retelling it from another perspective, sure, or expanding a moment into its own story, certainly. But a remix always acknowledges its source material, existing in perpetual conversation with the work that inspired it. By stubbornly ignoring the existence of what actually happened, Harrow engages not just in fix-it fic, but in full-on denialfic, which in turn leads to quite the canon divergence AU: It’s not just Gideon who doesn’t die (since she’s not there in the first place), but the various necromantic heirs’ fates all shift. Abigail and Magnus, the first victims of Canaan House in Gideon the Ninth, survive; Camilla Hect and Palamedes Sextus are not so lucky.

And it’s all at the hands not of Cytherea the First, but of a new villain, an entity known as the Sleeper. Harrow’s AU turns the events of the first book into even more of a horror story, with the heirs stalked by a foggy-masked killer in a hazmat suit carrying a shotgun. Then it begins raining viscera, and then people begin breaking the fourth wall.

Before Abigail pokes holes in Harrow’s AUs, a skeleton construct questions the Ninth House necromancer: “Is this how it happens?” Marta Dyas asks, “Why am I here?” Dulcinea—the real one—is desperate to know, “Does it get better?”

No one has the answer, because they’re all caught in a remix written by someone else. Yep, Harrow’s fix-it fic gets remixed by a poltergeist, which demotes her from the author (who had gathered all of these revenants on a stage to act out her coping mechanism) to yet another body onstage. And as Gideon forced Harrow to learn—and which she has steadfastly refused to believe for this entire book—on her own she is not enough.


the power of a well-placed poem

Due to their varying lengths, a given author’s fanfics may number in the hundreds. With drabbles and ficlets and epic WIPs as myriad and malleable as bone chips, it can be exhausting to properly title them all. Many a fanfic author has turned to poetry, cribbing lines of prose to christen their short masterpieces. (One might even name the sections of a five-times fanfic in such a fashion. It might have been a House, MD fanfic. Moving on.)

Over the course of their AU adventures in Canaan House, Ortus Nigenad is far less concerned with being a proper cavalier than he is with scratching away at The Noniad, his epic verse tribute to the Ninth House’s legendary cav Matthias Nonius. Endlessly amusing is the fact that while Harrow is clumsily, bloodily trying to rewrite her immediate past, Ortus is much more delicately and precisely adjusting his prose concerning a mythical hero long-dead, while being forced to participate in this charade. That tension first comes to a head when he recites some of The Noniad as proof that he is not the cav she wants nor needs, and then straight-out asks her why she chose him.

“There was nobody else,” Harrow responds, and then Ortus actually briefly manifests a spine and looks exasperated with her as he snaps, “You never did possess an imagination.” He immediately apologizes for his impertinence, knowing that it’s too early in this AU to break with Harrow’s unstable narrative. But it’s as close to breaking the fourth wall as the fabricated flashbacks get this early on, and it’s wonderfully ironic, seeing as the AU-hopping section easily proves the range of Harrow’s imagination.

Later, when Harrow has lost all control over the story to the Sleeper, Ortus does exactly what she witheringly taunted him to do: He conjures Matthias Nonius. This sweet nerd with not a fighting bone in him instead claims his side on the pen-versus-sword debate and summons Matthias Nonius using The Noniad itself. He recites his epic fanfic poetry while Abigail performs an astounding feat of magic, and the man, the myth, the legend appears to fight the Sleeper.

Baleful the black blade struck at the shimmering stuff of the spectral beast, biting deep in its false flesh;

Shrieking, it flailed with its claws at the pauldrons and casque of the Ninth, yet his heart never faltered or failed him…

It is every writer’s dream: their words powerful enough to decide the course of a battle for all of our souls. No…actually, the writer’s real dream is that after spending an entire novel being chastened for writing your dumb little fanfic, it saves everyone’s freaking afterlives.

As God tells Harrow during one of their excruciatingly tender biscuit-and-tea talks, “Poetry is one of the most beautiful shadows a civilisation can cast across time.”

It just depends what your definition of poetry is.


memes are the true Emperor Undying

My body is ready.

Yes, well, jail for Mother.

Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead Kia Hua Ko Te Pai Snap Back to Reality Oops There Goes Gravity

Hi, Not Fucking Dead. I’m Dad.

These inside jokes and memes that regenerate themselves like bone constructs are, technically speaking, more the language of fandom than fanfiction. Yet it’s the same conversational shorthand, its own unique mode of communication and, most importantly, the key to recognizing other people like you.

Ten thousand years later, and humans are naming themselves after Eminem raps and turning memes into badass one-liners. As Commander Wake says of her own name, they are both dead words and a human chain reaching back ten thousand years. The Necrolord Prime might have resurrected the universe, but the survival of these words, in these familiar configurations, is not his doing.

Even if people live and die and don’t get reborn, or if they come back as someone entirely unrecognizable, language lives on in those who speak it.


second person, or the call is coming from inside the lyctor

Not that second person can’t be fanfic language! But it is not specific to fanfiction in the way that these other styles are, and in fact is alive and well (if used more infrequently) in SFF. As Amber Sparks oh-so-succinctly puts it on Twitter, often the “you” is not the reader, but the protagonist, disassociating themselves from trauma. It’s used to excellent purpose in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, as Essun retreats from her own awareness upon witnessing the corpse of her murdered son, and must be coaxed back to herself by being retold her life story.

At the start of Harrow the Ninth, the use of second person does initially sound like Harrow: bitter and disgusted with herself for taking her cavalier inside of herself and then not even having proper Lyctorhood to show for it. It would track that she would hold herself at a distance, narrating her pathetic attempts to ford the River and her deplorable use of the two-handed sword.

But just as someone else coaxes Essun back to herself, it’s another voice that is struggling to unknot Harrow’s snarled fix-it fic back into canon. That voice subtly points out how every time she talks about Ortus in the present, people’s mouths shape a different name and her brain also helpfully spasms, sending blood gushing out of her ears every time someone says Ortus when they should be saying Gideon. It pushes her to look in the mirror and question if she’s really seeing Ortus’ dark eyes, or her own, and which eyes she should actually be staring into. It calls her a bitch to get her attention, but it takes knocking heads with the revenant of Palamedes Sextus to finally jar things loose:

But you were always too quick to mourn your own ignorance. You never could have guessed that he had seen me.

(Who else screamed when they read this?)

None of the Harrows—not the piecemeal remembrance of the Reverend Daughter in the past, nor the fractured Harrow the First at present—realize, as they’re perpetually resurrecting Gideon through dreamlike AUs, that Gideon’s been inside her all along. And she is pissed off that Harrow would rather take a hammer to her skull than accept what happened.

Gideon’s control of Harrow’s body, and the Sleeper as metaphor for this sleepwalker state, is the subject of a whole other essay. For now, it’s enough to celebrate Gideon Nav as the quintessential “one other time” in five times fanfic—the exception to the rule, the time that stands alone, the shift in perspective that is not another remix, but which returns Harrow, Gideon, and the readers to canon.


The worst (best) part is that after all this, Harrow the Ninth has that dreamy, complete-yet-unfinished feel of an excellent fanfic. I’ve read it twice, and am still not entirely sure how everything shakes out at the end. Will Gideon and Harrow be like ships passing in the night, or like Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in The Lake House, and never actually share the same body at the same time? Is Harrow dead? Is Gideon’s soul going to disappear now? Who is Camilla talking to in the epilogue??

I don’t know. And that is torture, but still slightly less agonizing than the ending of Gideon the Ninth. And until Alecto the Ninth, there are plenty of ways to pass the time, and stories to tell.

Harrow the Ninth is available from Tordotcom Publishing.

Natalie Zutter didn’t even get into Palamedes writing his own fanfic sequel to The Necromancer’s Marriage Season. She was recently a guest on the Reading the End Bookcast, sharing even more spoilery and flailing feels about Harrow the Ninth. Otherwise, squee over fanfic tropes with her on Twitter!

About the Author

Natalie Zutter


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