Nona the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir

Cover image

Series: The Locked Tomb #3
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-85412-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 480

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Nona the Ninth is the third book of the Locked Tomb series and entirely pointless to read if you have not read the series to date. It completely spoils the previous books, assuming you would be able to figure out who these people were and why you should care about them. This is only for readers who are already invested.

This series was originally supposed to be a trilogy, and this book was supposed to be Alecto the Ninth. Muir says in the acknowledgments, and has said at more length elsewhere, that Nona changed all of her plans and demanded her own book. Hence this book, postponing the end of the series and lengthening it to four books.

After reading it, I understand why Muir decided to write a whole book about Nona. She's an interesting character in ways that wouldn't have come out if she was a small part of the concluding book. Unfortunately, it's also obvious that this book wasn't part of the plan. It's not entirely correct to say that Nona the Ninth is devoid of series plot, but the plot advances very little, and mostly at the end.

Instead, we get Nona, who is physically a teenager who acts like someone several years younger, most of the time. She lives with her family (who I won't name to avoid spoilers for Harrow the Ninth), helps at a local school (although her level of understanding is about that of the students), and is a member of a kid's gang. She also has dreams every night about a woman with a painted face, dreams her family are very interested in.

This sounds weirdly normal for this series, but Nona and her family live in a war-torn city full of fighting, refugees, and Blood of Eden operatives. The previous books of the series took place in the rarefied spaces of the Houses. Here we see a bit of the rest of the universe, although it's not obvious at first what we're looking at and who these people are. Absolutely no concession is made to the reader's fading memory, so expect to need either a re-read, help from friends with better memories, or quality time with a wiki. And, well, good luck with the latter if you've not already read this book, since the Locked Tomb Wiki has now been updated with spoilers for Nona.

The other challenge, besides memory for the plot, is that this book is told from a tight third-person focus on Nona, and Nona is not a very reliable narrator. She doesn't lie, exactly, but she mostly doesn't understand what's going on, often doesn't care, and tends not to focus on what the reader is the most interested in. Nona is entirely uninterested in developing the series plot. Her focus is on her child friends (who are moderately interesting but not helpful if you're trying to figure out the rest of the story) and the other rhythms of a strange life that's normal to her.

For me at least, that meant the first half of this book involved a lot of "what the heck is going on and why do I care about any of this?" I liked Harrow the Ninth a lot, despite how odd and ambiguous it was, but I was ready for revelations and plot coherence and was not thrilled by additional complexity, odd allusions, and half-revealed details. I didn't mind the layers of complexity added on by Harrow, but for me Nona was a bit too much and I started getting frustrated rather than intrigued.

We do, at last, get most of the history of this universe, including the specific details of how John became God Emperor and how the Houses were founded. That happens in odd interludes with a forced and somewhat artificial writing style, but it's more straightforward and comprehensible than I feared at first.

The pace of the story picks up considerably towards the end of the book, finally providing the plot momentum that I was hoping for. Unfortunately, it also gets more cryptic at the end of the book in ways that I didn't enjoy. The epilogue, which is vital to understanding the climax of the novel, took me three readings before I think I understood what happened. If you preferred the clarity of Gideon the Ninth, be warned that Nona is more like Harrow and Muir seems to be making the plot more cryptic as she goes. I am hoping this trend reverses in Alecto the Ninth.

This book made me grumpy. Nona is okay as a character, but the characters in this series that I really like mostly do not appear or appear in heavily damaged and depressing forms. Muir does bring back a couple of my favorite characters, but then does something to them that's a major spoiler but that I think was intended to be a wonderful moment for them and instead left me completely cold and unhappy. There are still some great moments of humor, but overall it felt more strained.

That said, I still had tons of fun discussing this book and its implications with friends who were reading it at the same time. I think that is the best way to read this series. Muir is being intentionally confusing and is inserting a blizzard of references. Some of them are pop culture jokes, but some of them are deep plot clues, and I'm not up to deciphering them all by myself. Working through them with other people is much more fun. (It also gives me an opportunity to feel smug about guessing correctly what was happening at the end of Harrow the Ninth, when I'm almost never the person who makes correct guesses about that sort of thing.)

I think your opinion of this one will depend on how much you like Nona as a character, how much patience you have for the postponement of plot resolution, and how much tolerance you have for even more cryptic references. I'm still invested in this series until the end, but this was not my favorite installment. I suspect it (and the rest of the series) would benefit immensely from re-reading, but life is short and my reading backlog is long. What Muir is doing is interesting and has a lot of depth, but she's asking quite a lot of the reader.

Content warning: Nona has an eating disorder, which occupied rather more of my mental space while reading this book than I was comfortable with.

Followed by Alecto the Ninth, which does not have a publication date scheduled as of this writing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-10-23

Last modified and spun 2022-10-24