Review: Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

The (surprise) third book in Tamsyn Muir’s (now) four-book The Locked Tomb science fiction series is a creative but challenging delight.

Reader Stuff

Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth were some of my favorite novels ever, so I was very much looking forward to Alecto the Ninth when it was announced as the third book in the trilogy. Like the rest of the literary world, I was confounded when Nona suddenly cut into the line. It turns out that the first act in Alecto was so huge that it needed to be split into a book unto itself, which is where Nona came from–and which fits the series’s body-hopping necromantic chaos to a T, when you think about it.

Nona picks up a short span of time after Harrow left off, with the unidentified body that woke up screaming at the end of book two now occupied by a mysterious soul of unidentified origin. The titular Nona is childlike, petulant, and particular, a set of traits played as deftly for laughs as it is for drama. Despite her innocence, Nona, knows things, and her guardians are working hard to figure out how and why and who she is while surviving a hard-scrabble life on a post-apocalyptic planet saturated with the violence of inter- and intrafaction feuds. Intermissions in this story focus on God explaining the surprisingly 2020’s origins of his power to someone who may or may not be Nona. All of these different threads do come together later in the book when a pair of familiar characters arrive to push it all over the edge.

It is a lot to digest, and I regret having not re-read Gideon and Harrow again to prep myself for it. The book does very little to hold the reader’s hand, expecting its audience to recognize characters and their motivations from the two previous novels even though their names are sometimes different. Still, putting all those pieces together to build a coherent picture of the state of the universe after Harrow is rewarding, as is trying to work out the mystery of Nona’s identity. I found myself looking forward to the intermissions with God just as much as I did the next bits of character progression, as the history of where all this wild necromancy came from is finally revealed through a grandfatherly storytelling tone I really enjoyed. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised and impressed with how well all of the conclusion tied up all these different threads. I’ve got a much better standing of the story and the setting now–but I fully expect Muir to throw in some new twists to it all in Alecto, as she’s done throughout the series.

Nona the Ninth is absolutely a must-read for fans of The Locked Tomb, or of bonkers science fiction in general. Muir’s wit and heart are on full display here, driving a narrative that really fleshes out the world while setting the stage for what is sure to be a totally bananas showdown with God in Alecto. I can’t wait!

Writer Stuff

When I think about what I can learn from Nona as a writer, I think about pacing–both in terms of turning a planned trilogy into a longer series, and in the way this book’s plot takes its time getting to its big reveals. It’s a reminder that there can be a lot of value in giving a story space to breathe, and that the journey we take the reader on is just as important as the destination we eventually bring them to.

In inserting another book in between Harrow and Alecto, Muir’s sort of giving us a chance to get caught up. She certainly has a great picture of why her world is the way it is and how people are living within it, but as a reader, I didn’t. Switching from a third person perspective that stays tight to the titular Nona to a very different first person voice used to communicate the history of necromancy separates the present and the past in a way that makes each tale stronger while building a sort of suspense for how they’ll eventually come together. Reading that first person perspective is like listening to a funny, gruff grandfather–until you remember he’s a total bastard, and then you start to feel a bit guilty for enjoying his story.

Nona’s role is also extra important in building comprehension of and empathy toward the series’s secondary characters. Here, we see how the events of the past few books have personally affected them and what, if anything, they’re trying to do about it. That extra bump of familiarity means we care about them more, which will make their ultimate fates in Alecto (or whatever the finale ends up being) that much more powerful.