When literary historians look back on this era, I know they’re going to say that Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh described a lot of how it was, and that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Pixar described how we wanted things to be. But I hope they know that Tamsyn Muir’s The Locked Tomb series describes how it feels. To be alive right now feels brutal, insane, complicated, tragic, and hilarious, and we are all of us so acutely aware of everything falling to pieces around us. I can think of few better expressions than Gideon (2019), Harrow (2020), and now Nona the Ninth, all of which are love letters to Millennial culture, paeans to shitposting and being perpetually online. They are about how we take nothing seriously and are also simultaneously sad about everything. The series is the encapsulation of a cultural moment, and maybe even of a whole generation that was given a heap of dead and dying things and told to make miracles with them.
The Earth of these novels is one of the major dying things, in the last throes of habitability as humanity tries to put together a way out. Capitalism also isn’t looking too hot; the disembodied hand of the market has fused with rigor mortis into a final, perpetual middle finger from the mega-wealthy to everyone else. The trillionaires are still building their own rocket ships, only now instead of joyrides, they’re taking every last useful resource and absconding, and this time it’s not to offshore fiefdoms—it’s off-world entirely.
World governments, in various shades of ineptitude and corruption, are trying to make sure it’s not just the trillionaires who leave, and John—a.k.a. the Emperor, a.k.a. God—is trying to be part of the solution. He and his small team are running a cryogenics program to put the whole world into suspended animation until they can be ferried to Tau Ceti and one of the planets they hope will be a new home. And for a moment it seems like it’s all going to work out. Science is going to save us, and humanity will take to the stars at long last. And if science doesn’t do it, some kind of miracle will surely go the rest of the distance.
The miracle is necromancy, and it’s a third-rate miracle at best. It turns out that nobody cares if you’re Jesus-adjacent when the world is a mess. (Anyone who has read the New Testament can confirm that this is how it went for original recipe Jesus, too.) Healing the sick and raising the dead doesn’t fix rampant inequality, government incompetence, or the general human tendency to be a dick. And that includes John and his team. Nona the Ninth starts with John reciting his sins in a way that’s less confession and more justification, although we don’t know the full extent to which that’s true until the end. Muir, as always, doles out information in a way that only looks haphazard or slow. There’s actually a glut of information available from the first; it’s just that, for the third time in as many books, we once again don’t have the context to fully understand it.
That’s intentional, of course, and a part of the quartet’s ability to remain consistently engrossing. Yes, quartet. Muir blew up her plans for a trilogy and surprised everyone by turning The Locked Tomb series into a quartet, naming this now-penultimate volume after a character who had not previously appeared anywhere (Alecto the Ninth follows next year). Who is Nona? We know that the main character of her second book, Harrow, bears the full name Harrowhark Nonagesmius, which seems like a clue to reward that halfway-awake reader. It isn’t; it’s a misdirect. Muir is subtle about leading you to certain expectations that seem to preclude all other options, like giving you a choice between A, B, and C so that you forget there are twenty-three other letters of the alphabet to choose from. It’s a good strategy; I certainly didn’t catch it except in retrospect, and guessed Nona’s identity entirely wrong.
Though it briefly starts with John’s story, and although John’s story gives us a lot of the context we were missing about the rise of necromancy, this is Nona’s book. Her sections are about three quarters of the narrative, and they are an entirely new kind of delightful that is nonetheless still steeped in the dark charm of the overall series. Where Gideon was snarky and Harrow vicious, Nona just wants to go to school and pet all the dogs and have a birthday party. She’s as credulous and openhearted as a child, and like a child, the people around her are charmed but also exasperated by caring for her, especially as their planet also descends into apocalyptic chaos.
Elsewhere, the rebels of the previous novels—Pyrrha, Palamedes, and Camilla—are all, more or (in the case of Palamedes, who is a ghost) less, still kicking … and are still grappling with the fact that God has betrayed them. They’re no longer interested in empire, but the Blood of Eden isn’t exactly a utopian alternative. Fractured by infighting, catastrophically outgunned, and largely too overcome with hatred for necromancy to work with necromancer defectors, the rebellion isn’t doing so hot. This would be true even if there weren’t a Resurrection Beast in the sky and the Empire is on its way to wrest back control, but unfortunately the problems keep multiplying in their timeline as well as John’s.
I enjoyed this book in part because the work of the Blood of Eden and the revelation of John (yes, for these books puns are always intended) both trod far more familiar territory than the previous two books. John’s Earth is recognizable, and the Blood of Eden doesn’t introduce too many new complications. Nor even does Nona, really. Nona might be a mystery, but she’s also a very straightforward person. The mysteries are only ever around her, to be dealt with mostly by the necromancers and cavaliers left over from the cataclysmic ending of Harrow the Ninth. Their expectations for her are very simple, too: by memory or intuition, they want her to save them all.
But Nona is a lie. We know Nona is a lie. From the very first pages, everyone knows that Nona is a temporary personality hacked or grafted onto Harrow. Just like Millennials know, as a generation, that we can’t actually regress to a childlike state of nostalgic wonder using the power of heart and cute T-shirts to fix everything, Nona’s is a false identity. This isn’t to say that Nona’s open-heartedness is meaningless; it matters quite a lot to the plot. But her save-the-dog Good Guy-ism wouldn’t be possible without Pyrrha’s canny applications of espionage and violence or Camilla and Palamedes’s caution, training, and healthy doses of therapy. And we know from John’s story that putting a single person—no matter how fantastically powerful or well-meaning—in charge of world-saving is really, really dumb.
Muir lovingly deconstructs the Chosen One trope along with several others, but it’s less Derrida and more Top Chef, where somebody presents a deconstructed taco: all the elements are still there, it’s just weird now—but still delicious. In other words, it’s not that The Locked Tomb is unlike anything that’s come before. There are obvious influences and touchstones, from the Gene Wolfe-like fusion of magic and far-future technology (and the insistence on never explaining anything) to the shadowy, conspiratorial X-Files vibe, complete with the snarky redhead/crazy brunette dynamic and the unbearable quasi-platonic longing (and also rarely explaining anything).
And oh, the longing. The focus is off Gideon and Harrow in Nona, unfortunately, aside from fleeting mentions. I badly miss their dynamic, but Muir is more interested in intimacy than romance, and her shift in focus to Camilla and Palamedes certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. Muir uses them to deconstruct the love-will-save-us paradigm, too, insisting that it doesn’t have to follow that the love we need is the cishet sexual variety.
Like the pool scene in Gideon the Ninth, this novel’s magnificent romantic climax isn’t really romantic at all. Or it isn’t sexual, at least. I don’t think we entirely have words for the way that Camilla and Palamedes, two perfectly complementary and devoted souls, here become one in a fulfillment in every sense of the Platonic ideal, both the colloquial “platonic” and the classical concept of a divided soul finding its other half. It’s the moment when Catherine declares “I am Heathcliff” in Wuthering Heights, only in Nona the Ninth it isn’t then complicated and undermined by Victorian foibles (not to mention more than a century of scholarly discourse). Camilla and Palamedes are one person, a new person named Paul.
This consummation is significant. I’m not saying that queer longing didn’t exist before 1985, only that genre fiction of the Millennial era makes it possible to explore this kind of mutual intensity in new and interesting ways. This desire feels possible more than it ever did before. Like Paul, we’re not sure we can have a house (or House), and we’re not sure we have futures; but we have moments sublime enough that it doesn’t matter. And when those moments fade, the memes are still there to help us cope.
For Nona, for her friends, for John—and for all of us trapped in the 2020s—this is the way the world ends: not with a bang but with a meme. Well, with a bang and a meme. A meme about banging, naturally. Not that the novel’s crude jokes make its heart-wrenching parts any less devastating. If anything, they enhance the moments of ruin and sacrifice, because what’s on the line isn’t just good people—it’s loveable ones. Flawed, to be sure, and deeply odd, but the humor makes them real where their badassery might otherwise render them remote, archetypal. They feel like the kinds of people you’d like to be friends with.
It feels momentous to be reading these books as they’re released. Even though they’re wildly popular, it still feels like being in on a secret, like the contemporary equivalent of reading The Lord of the Rings. People are making pins for “we do bones, motherfucker” like they made “Frodo lives,” and I’m just waiting for the day when I see any of Muir’s infinitely quotable lines scrawled on a subway wall. In fifty years (or less, hopefully), there’s going to be an adaptation and then a couple of animated series spinoffs, and then someone is going to badly mess up a semi-authorized prequel and there will be a lot of Hot Takes about how we’ve finally exhausted this particular wellspring and it’s time to let it die, and then the hologram AI of Taika Waititi will reinvigorate the franchise, and the Hot Takers will say they knew it all along.
But for now, Nona the Ninth is confusing, strange, heartbreaking, scary, smart, and funny. It’s a worthy addition to The Locked Tomb and the perfect coping mechanism for 2022. Because if nothing else, these novels make it feel like someone’s in charge of this mess.