Review: Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

The third but not final book in the increasingly inaccurately named Locked Tomb Trilogy is also, I believe, to be the most accessible, interesting and funny. There are some good quips in Gideon the Ninth, and some disorientating pop culture references in Harrow the Ninth but only Nona the Ninth made me laugh out loud multiple times. Which is pretty good for a book that takes both war and Catholic theology seriously.

The big advantage Nona has over Gideon and Harrow is that Nona herself is just a lot more likeable. That’s a shallow criterion for judging a book but part of Muir’s writing genius with the Locked Tomb has been to pitch the style and structure of each volume to the titular character. Gideon was a brash, swashbuckling story with a protagonist who was fun to be with but who never really paid attention to the complex puzzle she was entangled with. Harrow was paranoid, secretive and actively leading the reader astray so as to hide their own vulnerability. Nona also doesn’t know what is going on but the central character is both innocent and curious and not afraid to ask questions.

So yes, it is another puzzle box but the puzzle is clearer. Nona isn’t sure who she is and neither are the people looking after her but everybody is making a plausible guess that she is either Gideon or Harrow. Nona, for the most part, is just Nona: a child with barely six months of awareness in the body of a young woman.

The second advantage of Nona is that it escapes the claustrophobia of the first two novels. It was suggested in the earlier texts that there are multiple planets and teeming populations but neither story had any real sense of that. Nona also stays largely in a few locations (mainly an apartment and a school) but both are in a very real feeling city inhabited by ordinary living people with a natural fear of necromancy.

Nona’s gang of schoolmates, led by the commanding presence of Hot Sauce, feel like real kids in tough circumstances. It gives the story a more material grounding which enhances the more wild elements of the broader setting. Giving the universe of the Locked Tomb a story largely set in a city of refugees and warring factions retroactively improves the earlier books. I never felt entirely convinced that there was a more populated world out there in Gideon the Ninth, and in Harrow the Ninth the possibility that everything (including the earlier book) was the fever dream of a single character was an active plot point. Of course, key characters still have god-like powers and Nona’s world was as likely to be an illusion as parts of Harrow’s but the difference here is the more grounded and everyday aspect of the characters made Nona’s world matter more.

There’s a point late in the book when things have already got very wild and necromantic and events are pulling the plot back to Gideon when Nona herself is reminded that Noodle1 (a six-legged dog) is also in a speeding truck. It’s a very basic trick to re-affirm the basic stakes of life and death2 by appealing to the well being a lovely little dog but applying it in-universe for Nona reflects how this novel makes the events matter emotionally in a way that I think the earlier two didn’t.

Most of the chapters focus on Nona, but breaking the story into multiple sections are accounts from John Gaius aka the Necrolord aka the god emperor of the whole thing. Here we get the backstory of the setting, with Gaius as a researcher into cryogenics in a near future New Zealand. I won’t detail how that gets us from Otago to a cosmic Necrocracy but things start to make more sense.

The underlying scope, theme and mechanics of the Locked Tomb become clearer here. Where the necromancy and puzzle box mysteries of Gideon the Ninth seemed more motivated by a rule-of-cool (skeleton powers! mirror shades! swords!), here they feel more a part of broader musings on theology and mystery in a spiritual sense. So pulling in Catholic & gnostic theology into a fantastical setting isn’t a new trick, it remains a good trick and one I’m always happy to see.

What if a man was god and had the power of the kind of miracles attributed to Jesus but…was just some guy. What if the supreme being of the universe was just some shitty bloke who’d rather not blow up Melbourne because it has decent public transport but will if he has to? They are not the questions raised by William Blake or Gene Wolfe but they are part of the same discussion about power and life. If Muir is approaching them with mystery, shifting identities and fantastical settings then she is notable company.

At the end of Harrow the Ninth I was both impressed and frustrated and intrigued by what the next volume would bring3. I’m now excited to read the next book. The ambition and complexity of this series keep growing and even the frustrating parts have added to the whole.

  1. [the Locked Tomb wiki is still updating its character list for the book but notably, when I checked this morning it had listed Nona, her three caregivers/parents and Noodle]
  2. [or life and double death]
  3. [at that point it was still supposed to be the final volume Alecto the Ninth]
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15 responses to “Review: Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir”

      • I had the same feeling about Gideon. Despite that I started on Harrow just this weekend – but I only got a few pages past the prologue before I said “nah, this isn’t worth it” and put it away again.

        It’s interesting to me that people here mention Catholic theology, because one of the musings I had in the brief time I read it on Sunday was something like “I think there are lots of theology references here but I don’t get them and I’m not interested in them.”

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  1. What if the supreme being of the universe was just some shitty bloke who’d rather not blow up Melbourne because it has decent public transport but will if he has to?

    Nobody mention the Upfield line.

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  2. I have really wanted to talk with someone about this series so it is particularly aggravating that I didn’t have time to read this post in full until now. Though the comments answer one question for me: was the series as polarizing as I thought it might be? Looks like yes.

    I had that same claustrophobic feeling of the first two books where we saw so few people that I just had a really hard time convincing myself there were more than, oh, a couple dozen people in each House. (Calling the military branch the Cohort may have contributed to this, as that implies a fairly small number to me.) And as with the other books, I expect I’ll find myself rereading this one to figure out what the hell is going on, but not actually minding that it takes multiple reads to do so. I’ll probably have to reread the first two also to see how other mysteries come into focus with the additional information of the third. Though I don’t think I will ever understand what makes Ianthe tick.

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