Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series actively resists easy explanation, a story of impossible loss, love, and grief set in a far-flung universe where necromancers reign in the Nine Houses built on the bones of murdered worlds. Part fantasy, part space opera, and part apocalyptic nightmare, the story follows the swashbuckling adventures of bone mages and flesh adepts, cavaliers, skeleton armies, petty bureaucrats, and even God himself. Muir’s biting, hilarious prose is full of dark subject matter (violent death, creeping body horror, and various bits of effluvia and gore are commonplace) but tons of heart, deftly exploring issues of identity, belonging, love, and family.
It’s truly unlike anything else in science fiction and fantasy, and the best way I can explain its appeal to you is simply to tell you to go read it and find out for yourselves. (It’s worth it, I promise.)
But since the Locked Tomb series as a whole frequently defies description, it shouldn’t shock anyone that its latest installment, Nona the Ninth, does too. A book that wasn’t even supposed to exist in the first place—the bones of this story were originally slated for the first act of the upcoming series finale Alecto the Ninth—Nona is the series’ most personal and human. To be fair, it also contains just as much violence and cruelty as its predecessors. Characters die, get resurrected, and swap bodies just as easily as ever. But where Gideon the Ninth ended in tragedy and Harrow the Ninth was a study in grief, Nona the Ninth feels like something altogether different: A story about life, and maybe even a little bit about hope.
Set over five days during the countdown to an apocalyptic event, Nona the Ninth’s story is initially deceptively mundane. Though she’s only six months old (in a nineteen-year-old body she knows doesn’t belong to her), Nona is a being of simple pleasures. She loves her job at a local school, and the pack of streetwise kids she’s befriended there. She loves dogs and the ragtag group of three adults (who share two bodies) that have become her family. And while she may live in a war-torn city full of poverty and violence, all she wants is a birthday party at the beach. (Even if the water is such that no one should probably do any swimming.)
Nona makes for a delightful protagonist whose innocent, childlike way of navigating the world feels like a breath of fresh air after two books worth of secrets, betrayals, and ulterior motives. But at the edges of her life, we see hints that things are not as idyllic as our heroine believes. There’s a giant blue sphere in the sky, and it might be making everyone sick. The resettlement camps are growing restless and hard to control. People are burned to death if they’re suspected to be zombies. And everyone seems to think Nona’s true identity holds the key to either saving or damning the empire, no matter how she feels about the subject.
Spliced alongside Nona’s story are several intriguing interludes that delve into the origin story of the Nine Houses, John Gaius (a.k.a. God), and the original death and resurrection of Earth. These snippets expand our understanding of the series’ world in new and often uncomfortable ways, showing us the birth of a necromantic kingdom that features disturbing parallels to our own present day.
But for all that this is clearly a Locked Tomb book, Nona the Ninth is very different from either installment that has come before. Technically more straightforward than its predecessors—you know from the start that as likable as Nona is for her own sake, her identity is essentially a cover for someone else’s, and the question of who that person is driving the bulk of the story—the book still expects us to do a fair amount of reading between the lines ourselves and offers up no easy answers. Its story spends what feels like a prodigious amount of time on the day-to-day routine of Nona’s life rather than, say, anything having to do with the massive cliffhanger the previous novel ended on. And we see many of the figures we previously would have described as main characters only briefly and their motivations remain removed and opaque at the best of times, thanks to being viewed through Nona’s POV.
It’s a gutsy move on Muir’s part to drop a second book (in a row no less!) whose immediate hook is amnesia, and may well feature the same amnesiac character from the previous installment who has now (maybe?) lost herself in a completely different way. Yet Nona’s story could not be more opposite to the 500-plus-page meditation on grief that was Harrow the Ninth. There, Harrow purposefully loses herself because she cannot bear her life in the wake of her ascension to Lyctorhood, whereas here Nona can’t remember who she is, but is determined to embrace every moment of her all-too-brief existence anyway, crappy upstairs neighbors, T-shirts with inappropriate sayings on them, and all.
Farewell Nona, we barely knew you. But what a lovely time we had together.
Nona the Ninth is available now from Tordotcom Publishing
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.