Nona the Ninth
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers the size of Naberius Tern’s ego. Other reviews in this series can be found here.
I had many thoughts while I was reading this book, some more coherent than others, but all of them boil down to one primal howl: HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO WAIT A YEAR FOR ALECTO THE NINTH? This is one case where I really really really wish there were in-universe swear words, because I would be using them all. If Margaret Atwood made me want to become a writer, Tamsyn Muir is making me want to pack up shop: nothing I write will ever top the perfection of Nona‘s epilogue, and I know it.
To quickly recap the last two books: Gideon the Ninth introduced Gideon Nav and Harrowhark “Harrow” Nonagesimus, a pair of trapped teenagers who hated everything about each other until they were forced to enter an interplanetary competition together. Harrow was the last necromancer produced by the House of the Ninth, and Gideon was the best available cavalier (bodyguard) despite a total lack of actual cavalier training. The competition was ostensibly intended to elevate as many necromancers as possible to the role of Lyctor (a really really souped-up cavalier) to the God Emperor of the Nine Houses, but its organizers failed to mention that, in order to achieve Lyctorhood, the necromancers would have to kill their cavaliers and ingest their souls. Under laboratory conditions, the necromancer’s soul would then assimilate the cavalier’s soul, and the resulting Lyctor would have both necromantic powers and extreme prowess in physical combat. During the course of the competition, Gideon and Harrow met necromancers and cavaliers from other families – most notably Palamedes Sextus and Camilla Hect from the House of the Sixth – and grudgingly became friends, but found their blossoming friendship cut short when Gideon sacrificed herself to turn Harrow into a Lyctor during a vicious battle with runaway Lyctor Cytherea the First. Yes, this is basic information, but it’s important.
Harrow the Ninth picked up the threads of Harrow’s life shortly after Gideon torpedoed it, and followed her for almost a year as she struggled both as a newborn Lyctor and as one of the newest members of the Emperor’s traveling court, barring Ianthe Tridentarius, who became a Lyctor on the same day. During this time, she met adult Lyctors Mercymorn, Augustine, and Gideon Prime, and she met God (also called “John”), who spent most of their one-on-one sessions trying to teach her, trying to get her to eat, and benignly gaslighting her. The worst year of her life was promptly followed by the worst day of all their lives, which started with an attack by a planet-destroying creature called a Resurrection Beast and ended with Harrow’s soul possibly dying in the River, a halfway place between life and death. Meanwhile Gideon, in Harrow’s physical body, fought a bunch of undead space wasps (“Heralds”) sent by the Resurrection Beast and bore witness to Mercymorn and Augustine’s attempt to assassinate the Emperor, and learned completely by mistake that the Emperor was her father, and her late mother was the leader of a terrorist cell in the anti-necromancer organization Blood of Eden. In the aftermath of Augustine’s apparent death and the Emperor’s rescue by Ianthe, Gideon attempted to escape the Emperor’s ship before she could drown in the River, but her ultimate fate was unclear.
All of this brings us to Nona the Ninth, which begins six months after Gideon’s possible drowning. Gideon is absent, while Harrow’s soul wanders the ruins of Earth side by side with God, who tells her in a series of dreams how his work in cryogenics put him on the path to become the first necromancer in history (and also how he ended up destroying the planet). In real time, Harrow has been replaced by Nona, a sweet, simple girl who woke up in Harrow’s body shortly after the Emperor’s battle with Augustine. Nobody knows who she is, least of all Nona herself; her rescuers thought they were getting Harrow, but they ended up with Nona instead. Though Nona is thought to be either Gideon or Harrow, she possesses none of their skills, and is not interested in acquiring them. She spends half of the book just enjoying life while living in a tiny apartment with former cavaliers Camilla Hect and Pyrrha Dve in the city of New Rho, which is plagued by at least a dozen competing Blood of Eden cells. Camilla is partially possessed by her deceased necromancer, Palamedes, whose soul she recovered during the events of Harrow the Ninth, while Pyrrha was cavalier to the Lyctor Gideon the First, whose body she usurped upon his death. In their little household, Pyrrha is the breadwinner; Camilla takes care of Nona; Palamedes teaches Nona about necromancy, to the extent that he can; and all of them conspire to trick Nona into eating her breakfast. In short, life would be more or less all right if they weren’t on a planet facing total destruction.
There is, of course, a rub: Nona is not a charity case, and great things are expected of her. As the key figure in the Lyctor project run by Blood of Eden Cell Commander We Suffer and We Suffer (“We Suffer”), she is supposed to be recovering her Lyctor powers because, again, Blood of Eden thought they were getting Harrow and were very disappointed with what they actually got. To this end, she is both protected and monitored by her family and partially supervised by cell member Crown Him with Many Crowns Thy Full Gallant Legions He Found It in Him to Forgive (“Crown”), formerly Coronabeth Tridentarius. And, though she is absolutely not what anybody was expecting, Nona has made tremendous progress over the last six months: she can talk in full sentences, she has learned that it is inappropriate to stick her fingers into other people’s ears, and she has only thrown two tantrums in her entire life. Unfortunately, these are not the kind of performance metrics anybody else considers useful, making Nona a large source of tension between her family and Blood of Eden. The rest of the tension stems from a widespread hatred of necromancers, who are referred to as “zombies” and regularly murdered in public.
As if this weren’t bad enough, the city is thrown into worse turmoil by the arrival of Ianthe, who demands – among other things – that Blood of Eden cease all activity in the general area, and that any AWOL House personnel put themselves into her custody. In a bid to lure Harrow out of supposed hiding, she makes her broadcast alongside Gideon’s resurrected corpse, which is now referred to as Crown Prince Kiriona Gaia, heir to the Emperor. With time running out on the Turn-Nona-Into-Harrow clock, as well as the looming destruction of their planet by a particularly hungry Resurrection Beast named Varun the Eater, Pyrrha and Camilla/Palamedes work with We Suffer and Crown to steal Kiriona, only to learn that Kiriona is a self-directed revenant with a fully intact memory.
In the chaos that follows, both political and Varun-related, Nona reaches the end of her physical lifespan as the sheer breadth of her soul begins to overwhelm Harrow’s body. Having identified Nona as the escaped soul of Alecto, former cavalier to the Emperor, her family scramble to take her to the Tomb of the Ninth to reclaim her own body before Harrow’s body is completely destroyed. Kiriona tags along for reasons of her own, while Camilla/Palamedes combine their souls in a Lyctor-like transformation and rename themselves Paul, which enables them to transport their entire group to the Ninth House via the River. They are briefly delayed by Ianthe, who tries to stop them, but ultimately succeed. Alecto returns to her body, albeit reluctantly, and Harrow recovers in time to find herself face to face with the supposed corpse her family was literally created to protect. There follows a short but glorious epilogue in which Ianthe attempts to kill Alecto, who swats her aside like a fly before swearing fealty to Harrow and then going to find her errant ex-necromancer. Finding him naked and drunk in bed, she stabs him with an iron sword, and he wakes up and bids her a polite good morning.
I’ll be the first to admit that this wasn’t the third book I was imagining, but it was absolutely the one that I needed. There were a couple of places where it dragged very slightly, particularly towards the end, but overall it was an amazing ride. It did not suffer from the same problems that I had with Harrow, chiefly because its protagonist is no more capable of understanding technical necromantic language than I am. This is, for me, one of the greatest wonders of the Locked Tomb series: every book is completely distinct, because the language and tone of each book are based on its narrating character. If you dropped me in the middle of any one of them, I would know where I was. As with the first two books, I am in awe of the characters, who don’t require extended introductions along the lines of “Previously in the Locked Tomb!” They just show up, and I know them, and they’re wonderful.
Aside from Nona, who is possibly my favorite Locked Tomb protagonist thus far, I really love Pyrrha, Camilla, and Palamedes. I love their relationships with each other, and I love how much they collectively dote on Nona. I really love that, even separated by death and unable to speak face to face, Camilla and Palamedes are still in constant communication with each other. Their relationship might have been soppy in the hands of a less capable writer, but in Muir’s hands it’s just perfect. Hell, I even like Ianthe, and that was a fucking long shot. To get me to love almost an entire ensemble cast is no small feat, but to do it three books in a row, and to hold my attention through every page of those books, is nothing short of a miracle. (Also, I don’t really know why Alecto’s POV was narrated in old-timey English when she was theoretically a contemporary of the Emperor, but I’m here for it. I mean, just look at it.)
At the breaking of the chains and of the bones, one of the children there [Ianthe] offered violence to her, appearing on the altar and raising her weapon high. But the black-eyed infant collapsed on the altar [Harrow] chid her sharply in a clear voice, saying, What is this that thou wouldst do, Tridentarius? Touch her and our vow will come to nothing, and I will slay you where you stand.
To which the first child said, Thou knowest not what thou dost.
And the second child answered, Not lately, but now.
And the first child asked: Dost thou oppose me, and thou half-dead?
And the second child said, I am as one half-dead, but you would be two-halves dead, bitch.
To which the first child said, My sweet, I only die of longing for thee.
And the other child said, Then perish.
That is the most stone-cold Harrowhark answer anyone could ever imagine to a declaration of love, and I am absolutely stealing it the next time somebody tells me they are dying of longing for me. (I say that like people regularly expire of longing for me. Hey, it could happen.) Then there was this, because it wouldn’t be a Locked Tomb review without at least two quotes:
So Alecto, wearied of talking, kneeled upon the rock and offered up the sword to her [Harrow], and placed the child’s hand upon the blade, so that it received also the red blood of the child. This made the child exceeding faint, but it did not swoon of weariness.
Which strength pleased Alecto, who said: Notwithstanding, I offer you my service.
To which a voice on the opposite side of the shore was raised, exceeding wroth, and Alecto heard it shout in a very great shout: Get in line, thou big slut.
Now. I’m assuming this is going to be explained in the next book, but, since I don’t have the next book, I am unsure of Alecto’s exact classification. She is first introduced as someone close to the Emperor, when he was still a human man named John Gaius. It sounds like she’s a loved one suffering from an unspecified illness, which his work is supposed to help cure, but later she starts to sound more like some kind of deity who chose to bestow her power upon him (which, now that I think about it, might explain why she talks like a Bible). He mentions that he and his team went through events that brought attention to her, which I took to mean that she already had a body, but later he says that he had to build her a body – which he modeled on a Barbie doll, to her immense displeasure – to host the overflow of her soul when he realized he wasn’t strong enough to merge with her completely. I don’t know what Alecto is or why her soul is so large and so powerful, but I do know that I love what I’ve seen of her so far. She’s just barely woken up, and she already has such fed-up stay-at-home mom energy. I mean, how would I feel if my (presumed) ex put me to sleep for a couple thousand years, or possibly more, and then I suddenly woke up in a frozen cave surrounded by children? I’d sling those children under my arm to keep them safe and go off looking for somebody to stab, which most likely would end up being my ex. Shouldn’tve put me to sleep if he didn’t want to get stabbed.
I am also hoping that Gideon will at least have a peaceful ending. I have referred to her as “Kiriona” because she’s not really Gideon as we knew her – that is, her personality is more or less in place, but she’s missing the fundamental kindness that made her Gideon. This is definitely not her fault, given that part of her soul is presumably still in Harrow; and she has been in the custody of the Emperor her father, who has undeniably had a negative influence on her. I’m unclear on her motives at the moment: she claims that she wants to kill Alecto and then become her father’s cavalier, but I’m not really buying it because her fight with Ianthe on this subject was so unconvincing. Maybe it was just an off scene on Muir’s part, but, in a book that is so perfect in so many other respects, this seems a bit odd. Writers as careful as Muir don’t have accidents. Then, too, there was the “Get in line, thou big slut,” which was much more in line with Gideon’s character. But maybe the fight was genuine; maybe the outburst at the end was a lingering habit in the depths of a soul that has otherwise been reprogrammed. As much as I’d like to think that Gideon is playing her own game and the Kiriona thing is just a distraction, I am prepared for the possibility that the Emperor brainwashed her, which seems very likely in view of how thoroughly she rejected him at the end of Harrow the Ninth.
However this ends up shaking out, I have faith in Muir. She grabbed me on the first page of Gideon the Ninth, and she hasn’t let go. I don’t know if I want to stay on this ride forever, but I am so ready for one more book. That’s still at least a year off, though, so for now I’ll just have to keep giving thanks that the Tomb has finally opened.
Hopping on for a quick epiphany……………is Alecto the soul of Earth? I’ve been listening to the audio book, and I had forgotten the part where God says that he wanted to make Alecto stop hurting, even though he knew at the time that he wouldn’t live to see her recover. Combine that with the apparent environmental slant of his work, and his need to construct a body for Alecto’s enormous soul, and Alecto’s later statement that she chose to bestow power upon him, and………….oh, my god. Oh, my GOD. Alecto is the soul of our defiled, abandoned planet. This is why she’s so huge. This is why God’s power seems to be infinite. This explains so much. Always reread your books, because you never know what you’re going to find.