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In “Nona the Ninth,” Tamsyn Muir Zooms In on Her Goth Puzzle Box World

Who here remembers The Thief Lord? It was the debut middle grade novel of Cornelia Funke, the author behind the beloved Inkheart series, and it featured a ragtag bunch of orphans in Venice committing petty theft and pursuing a magical merry-go-round that allowed its riders to age forward or backward in time. I loved this book. I remember practically swallowing it whole after bringing it home from a Scholastic book fair, and it’s lurked in the back of my memory, ripe for nostalgia. What does this have to do with amnesiac bone magicians, their semi-undead trash-talking-and-sword-fighting himbos, and the world of Tamsyn Muir’s bestselling series? Bear with me.

I was late to reading Gideon the Ninth. Waiting for the hype around Gideon to die down had turned into that distant, wistful oh-I’ve-been-meaning-to-read-that feeling every time someone mentioned it, and it was only when sequel Harrow the Ninth arrived that I got to it. Now, to celebrate the arrival of the newest installment Nona the Ninth, I decided to sprint through a full Locked Tomb series reread. Fifteen hundred pages of lesbian necromancy and intergalactic bone magic in just a smidge over a week? Yeah, it’s been a blur. But a blur in the best way.

For all of The Locked Tomb series’ taglines (“lesbian necromancers in space!”) and frustrated comparisons (“People often ask me to recommend more books like Gideon the Ninth … Here’s the short answer: There aren’t any.”), as I barreled headfirst through Nona the Ninth the overwhelming association in my mind was with The Thief Lord. Found family, a child’s-eye view defamiliarizing a world that readers understand more than the protagonist does, the magic of pulling a coherent self through various times and bodies… If that’s a vibe you can get down with, then you’ll love Nona. If it sounds cloying, insufficiently action-packed, or too gauzy with metaphor, then you might find it more challenging. I won’t pretend this book isn’t as intricate and bewildering as Harrow felt. If you enjoyed twisting and turning the Rubik’s cube of Harrow, then there’s plenty to surprise and delight you in Nona.

**From here, this Nona the Ninth review is gonna be spoiler city. Gird yer loins.** 

A QUICK RECAP:  Right, so, Harrow the Ninth. At the end of the last installment, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, has slipped out of her body and into The River between the real world and the afterlife. As a result, the remnant of Gideon’s soul that Harrow had hidden within herself awakens and takes over Harrow’s body, the only giveaway being a change in eye color. Gideon Nav, we’ve learned, is actually the daughter of God (his name is John), a child created of stolen genetic material to one day unravel the blood wards and open the Locked Tomb. With the discovery that their beloved cavaliers didn’t need to die for perfect lyctorhood to be possible, lyctors Mercymorn and Augustine turn on God/John, and Mercymorn dies after an attempt on John’s life. Augustine is pushed into the mouth of hell in combat. Gideon narrowly escapes the same fate by breaking out of the Mithraeum space station into The River, along with cavalier Pyrrha Dve, where they watch as God/John is rescued from the mouth of hell by another lyctor, Ianthe. Battered and crushed by The River, Gideon is dying again, and the last thing she sees is someone frantically attempting to revive her. In the epilogue, a woman awakens in a war-torn city on an unknown planet, with uncertain necromantic abilities and mysteriously quick-healing injuries. She does not know who she is, but one of her caretakers is none other than Camilla Hect, Cavalier of the Sixth turned rebellion collaborator.

You get all that? Harrow the Ninth was a lot to keep track of, and that tangle is where Nona takes seed. Nona lives in a battered city on one of the planets resettled by those displaced by Resurrection Beasts, and she is the six-month-old soul of unknown origin piloting around someone else’s nineteen-year-old body, learning how to exist in the world. Her caretakers Pyrrha, Camilla, and Palamedes form a gruff-but-loving found family, and they’ve coaxed Nona from total incoherence into full, albeit naive and childlike, consciousness in the hopes of ascertaining who exactly she is. Is she an amnesiac Gideon? Is she a further-boggled Harrowhark? Is she someone else entirely?

Nona was a late-breaking addition to what would have been a trilogy, and while other critics have grumbled that this book should have stayed a plot arc in Alecto the Ninth instead of being expanded into its own novel, I actually think that in the context of the overarching series, the introduction of this book adds a satisfying internal symmetry. At first, I thought it was ballsy to the point of bonkers to follow one book about amnesiac necromancers with another, but instead Nona as both character and plot device reflects back the bewilderment of the second book and the character charisma of the first and uses this new perspective to expand and deepen our understanding of Muir’s world overall. If anything, I wished the first two books had had a bit more of what Nona does. Having focused primarily on big-picture battles of lyctors and cavaliers and metaphysical rivers, here we finally zoom in and see the day-to-day life of the Emperor’s subjects against this apocalyptic background.

Enter The Thief Lord. The central characters of Nona’s world are her friends, a band of children at the refugee school led by stoic fourteen-year-old Hot Sauce (what a name!) and comprising orphans, thieves, and one babyish seven year old named Kevin. As we follow Nona for five days through the motions of breakfast, school, dream-journaling, lessons, dog-walking, and mischief, some readers may bristle at what seems to be irrelevant or boring. I actually found this mundanity refreshing and worth the wait. It takes trust on the reader’s part to believe that details about the intra-group jostling of children, the little dramas around their teacher and their science classes, and Nona’s job as “Teacher’s Aide” will tie in to the plotline we’d thought we’d been following from the first two books. But slowly, these details coalesce into a novel loaded like a spring. The Blood of Eden rebels have surrounded a last Cohort army base and await the Emperor’s negotiation, and all the while they sit under the mysterious madness-inducing blue glow of the oncoming Resurrection Beast. It’s just that this time around, all the Old Testament space dramas fans loved from the first two books are filtered through The Prince and the Pauper and Oliver Twist. (And there’s a scene-stealing six-legged dog named Noodle.)

In addition to the five days structure (reflecting the five act structure of the previous books), there is also an explicit countdown to the opening of the Locked Tomb at the beginning of each day, just like the countdown to the Emperor’s murder in the previous book. This seems to be one of Muir’s favorite little tricks — giving away the twist up front and using anticipation instead of surprise to generate suspense and dramatic irony. There’s still Muir’s signature, what Alix Harrow described as “the lowering sense that very important things are happening which you are slightly too stupid to catch on the first read.” But with Nona being so new to literally everything, there’s also some real satisfaction for readers as they identify who and what is happening before Nona and her comrades do. Finally, we get to savor the fluency we’ve gathered over the last two books!

One of the best things about this dramatic irony in Nona is how Muir uses our character recognition to finally delve deeper into the practicalities of Lyctorhood — especially its potential for genderfuckery! Palamedes shares Camilla’s body, Pyrrha inhabits the body of her dead (male) necromancer, and their genders are distinguished not by the shorthand of appearance but by familiarity with their fundamental characters. It’s not that the body is irrelevant to gender — these bodies are what save Palamedes and Pyrrha! — but rather that these characters are always fully themselves despite attributes they inhabit at any given time. It’s gender play that goes so far beyond pronouns, and it’s nice to detour into the social consequences of Lyctorhood after two books of attention devoted to magical, philosophical, and military implications instead.

But that isn’t to say that this book sets aside philosophical implications at all. Interspersed between the Nona chapters are John chapters, cheekily titled like Biblical chapter and verse, taking place in Harrowhark’s dreams (presumably as she floats in The River) as she listens to God/John slowly reveal his full origin story. How did we get from our world to hers? How did this man achieve the first Resurrection, and at what cost? These chapters gutted me, and despite some initial frustration that they took me out of the Nona plotline, these John sequences were ultimately some of my favorite moments of the book. Hearing the story of John’s curdled optimism as plans to evacuate Earth’s entire population were co-opted by the ultra-wealthy, and recognizing the way that curiosity and discovery are yoked to bureaucracy and corruption by capitalism, the chronology/context questions I’d had since the first book finally clicked. I could feel Muir’s world of necromancers and space mausoleum warfare brush up against the real world.

That, I think, is what it all boils down to. If you want to feel the dazzling space-goth world of Gideon and Harrow within reach, to pull it close enough to see its day-to-day details, then Nona will feel like a veritable feast. This book is a narrative departure from the first two books, sure, but after Harrow the Ninth’s palimpsest of madness and grief, this book is less puzzle and more kaleidoscope. This little detour into the lived experience in this setting builds up to a dazzling conclusion with payoff to spare — that wealth of experience sets up rich emotional ground for the final installment Alecto the Ninth! Fleshing out her world across both past and present was brave on Muir’s part (since scope is where so many ambitious sci-fi and fantasy novels stumble). But damn, I’m glad she did.


Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is out now.


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Yashwina

Yashwina Canter is a reader, writer, and dyke putting down roots in Portland, Oregon. You can find her online at @yashwinacanter.

Yashwina has written 32 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Only read up to the spoiler warning and will return after my library hold gets in and I get a chance to read, but had to say that I fucking LOVED the thief lord when I was a kid and had totally forgotten about it. Inkheart too!

  2. i read this book over the last weekend, maybe not in quite the right mood for the John chapters, but i am still thinking about the whole vibe of the book rather than the details per se. the ‘lowering sense’ of not catching everything on first read is very pervasive and i’m not sure it’s a great thing or very enjoyable. perhaps more than anything else i enjoy all the discussion that the book and series generates as we attempt to comprehend! thanks Yashwina!

  3. Great review and summary! I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical in the beginning of the book, it felt so disjointed with the rest of the series in some ways (and even as I grew to love it, I still found schoolyard drama a bit boring), but as it picked up speed and the emotional punches kept coming, I agree it really fills in the universe. I am now doing an audio book listen after reading it first and honestly, on the verge of tears a lot knowing how everything ends. It feels like an opposite emotional journey from the Harrow the Ninth book. HtN starts out in tragedy, but wraps up with some wild hope and raucous humor, whereas NtN starts out with hope and found family and descends into tragedy at the end. Can’t wait to see how the series wraps up, I know it will be just as devastating as the first three installments!

  4. Thanks Yashwina, reassuringly brilliant review.

    I just finished Nona on my way to work this morning and I’m still in a WTF just happened state. It’s wonderful.

    I loved every part, especially how Noodle ends up saving the day, as it were. I’m still puzzling over Gideon, seeing her from such an outsider’s perspective was a bit disorienting.

    Time to read it again LOL.

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