Do Lyctors Dream of Undead Dykes? Review of Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Nona the Ninth. Tamsyn Muir. Tordotcom Publishing, September 13, 2022.
As countless reviewers before me have observed, it is devilishly difficult to describe Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series to the uninitiated. Yes, they feature lesbian necromancers in space, but this billing only just scratches the audacious surface of Muir’s books. Starting with her debut novel Gideon the Ninth, they have gleefully resisted comparison, even to other recent works queering sci-fi narrative expectations (Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy and Arkady Martine’s Texicalaan novels come to mind). Gideon blessed unsuspecting readers with an interstellar locked-room mystery packed with characters wielding swords nearly as long as their names, fueled by an enemies-to-lovers romance between a high-strung necromancer and her butch bodyguard. Rather than delivering more of the same, its sequel Harrow the Ninth instead reads like Douglas Adams-meets-Girl-Interrupted, gleefully refusing to bury its gays but utterly game to put them through all kinds of hell. Nona the Ninth once again pulls the rug out from beneath our feet, taking the kind of unexpected risks we’ve come to expect from the series in order to tell a very different kind of story—at least initially.
For all that the Locked Tomb series might be characterized by its dizzying perspectival shifts and bewildering plot technicalities, the star-crossed relationship between Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus provided its beating heart. When the second book ended with Gideon dying—yet again—and a mysterious girl waking seemingly in her place, Muir once more signaled her refusal to deliver anything approaching narrative catharsis. The question “Who is Nona?” has fueled speculation since the third installment was announced, but it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that this particular query remains, to an extent, unanswered. Instead, Nona the Ninth sees Muir raze the byzantine world she has created over the previous two books to bring her readers back to something like earth.
Nona the Ninth’s greatest strength lies in its willingness to attempt to tell a story that has accrued cosmic consequences on an entirely smaller scale. Call it domestic post-apocalyptic. Right off the bat, the usual dramatis personae is replaced by a guest list for Nona’s upcoming birthday party, celebrating the six months she’s been alive and living with two not-quite lyctors: Camilla Hect—precariously sharing her body with Palamedes Sextus—and Pyrrha Dve. Save for hazy dreams of a woman with a painted face, 18-year old Nona knows nothing beyond her unremarkable life in a city verging on social and ecological collapse, teeming with interplanetary refugees and menaced by an ominous blue sphere in the sky. She takes in her dystopian surroundings, however, with an irrepressible childlike relish, “delighted to get out into the warm concrete-smelling air and breathe in salty lungfuls of traffic fumes and ocean and burning rubbish.”
After Gideon’s street-smart snark and Harrow the Ninth’s brilliantly disorienting use of second-person POV, your mileage with Nona’s narrative voice—charmingly naïve, frequently horny, and utterly sincere—may vary. The “born yesterday” trope, however, affords Muir a laugh at her own tendency towards complexity: Nona’s fierce devotion to her family, friends, and
school means necromantic machinations or the finer details of resurrection rarely phase her. She is far more concerned with observing the small things people do with and for one another, the truths they may not even admit to themselves smuggled, instead, in a wordless blush or a sigh.
Indeed, whoever Nona may or may not be proves secondary, as the plot unfolds, to whom and what she loves. The internet has collectively read the idea of being an empath for filth, and Muir’s novel insists we inhabit a headspace where understanding others is not a magical power—Nona’s hopeless at “forbidden bone tricks”—but simply the product of time, attention, and care. Whatever traits she may at times seem to share with Harrow and Gideon (an aversion to redheads, or an attraction to buff, capable women), Nona’s sheer love for the world, and her refusal to cringe from that love, or let irony deflate it, is completely her own. The heading to each section might remind us that each day’s passing brings us closer to the tomb’s opening, but in the meantime Nona continues doggedly enjoying her life.
Halfway through Nona the Ninth, the plot kicks into a more distinctly Muir-esque gear with the arrival of Ianthe Tridentarius, accompanied by, to Nona’s surprise, the woman of (and from) her dreams. Much as I enjoyed being whisked along with Nona into the thick of things, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that pieces were being hustled into place: cleverly, always entertainingly, but hustled nonetheless. This sensation isn’t uncommon in the penultimate book of a series, but it did feel at odds with the grounded world-building distinct to Nona thus far. After Cam, Pal, and Pyrrha’s efforts to prevent their hopes of finding Harrow and Gideon shape who Nona becomes, it’s difficult to watch the weight of the baroque plot that ostensibly produced Nona suddenly falling on her shoulders, demanding she act accordingly.
Muir is not a careless writer: she offers her theological discourses, painstakingly precise anatomical terminology, and timely meme references with a warmth and sincerity not always present in post-apocalyptic fiction. Moments like when Nona asks Hot Sauce, “Forgive me so I can know what it feels like,” or when Camilla tells Palamedes, “Life is too short and love is too long” land with a breathtaking ferocity because of Muir’s disarming earnestness, tuned to a revelatory pitch with Nona’s perspective. Alecto the Ninth will have a great deal of work to do, and I have no doubt Muir will surprise us yet again–not only with the story she has to tell, but the way she will tell it. Nonetheless, I finished Nona the Ninth feeling uncertain as to whether what we had gained with our all-too-brief acquaintance with Nona justified her loss, however inevitable. In a series that has never shied away from exploring the grimmest corners of death and grief, I want to cling fast to one character’s promise that “you can’t take loved away.” In a universe where resurrection is on the table, that past tense is perhaps not quite as sturdy nor as uncomplicated as it sounds. The Locked Tomb opens, the character we have been waiting for finally speaks for herself, but I—perhaps unlike Muir’s characters, who were already barrelling forward with a quip tuned to the occasion—was still in mourning for the dead.
Sam Botz is a writer, scholar, and reader. A Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, her research interests include eighteenth-century archives of feeling, speculative fictions, environmental justice, and doomed polar expeditions. She lives in Chicago with her cat, Moira, and her dear friend and cat-co-parent.
This review was commissioned via emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB reviews. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.