“Let’s listen to the magical inside-out animal-shield man. He obviously has some good ideas.”
It’s been a good year for speculative fiction. Even as early as May 2022 we had Seanan McGuire’s Seasonal Fears, the highly anticipated and wildly original followup to her stunning 2019 novel Middlegame. Then there was Locklands, Robert Jackson Bennett’s stunning conclusion to the Founders Trilogy, and early this fall came Babel, a dark academia alternate history of 19th century Oxford that, in my mind at least, cemented R.F. Kuang as one of the greatest SFF(Science Fiction and Fantasy) writers of our time.
But even with two months to go, and promising releases like N.K. Jemisin’s The World We Make on the horizon, I’m calling it: Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth soars past them all. It’s a breathtaking book, and all the more remarkable for marking such a sharp departure from Muir’s previous entries in the Locked Tomb Quartet.
Take, for example, the final lines of the book’s opening chapter: “And so Nona lived with Camilla, Palamedes, and Pyrrha, on the thirtieth floor of a building where nearly everyone was unhappy, in a city where nearly everyone was unhappy, on a world where everyone said that you could outrun the zombies, but not forever…This had been the case for Nona’s entire life, which would be six months next week, and Pyrrha had said as a treat she would take everyone for a birthday trip to the beach (if nobody was setting up a mortar on it). Nona was so grateful to have had a whole six months of this. It was greedy to expect much longer.”
If your heart isn’t breaking yet, it should be. Muir’s ability to dance from voice to voice, slipping into the skin and the soul of narrator after narrator without missing a beat, has always been part of what made the Locked Tomb remarkable, but never before has she slipped a character into my heart quite like this. The ass-kicking, name-taking Gideon Nav made me fall in love with the series, it’s true, and the grief stricken Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus made her own tour de force in Harrow the Ninth, but in the end it seems neither of them were the heart of the story. Gideon was Muir’s charming voice of hope, the acerbically witty, riotously funny badass who never stopped fighting the impossible fight, and Harrow, in many ways her opposite, brought balance to their world with her tale of grief, survivor’s guilt, and the courage it takes to continue in the face of the unthinkable. But with Nona, Muir has found her voice of love, and it’s that voice, neither hope nor grief, but something in between, that makes this installment so much more powerful than its predecessors.
Yet for all that power, the story is relatively slow and wandering compared to the adventures of Gideon and Harrow. Nona is a girl with amnesia, 19 years old but with barely six months of memories, living in a war zone with her adoptive family. She works as a teacher’s aide at a local school, cleaning the chalkboards and helping “the tinies” down the hall to the bathroom or down the stairs to the basement whenever there’s an artillery exchange. To her, the fact that one of her beloved adoptive parents is a 10,000 year old immortal space knight and the second exists only as a disembodied soul meditating inside a shard of knuckle bone who times shares a body with the third when he gets bored, is almost beside the point. As is her uncanny ability to heal the normal bangs and scrapes of growing up in a very abnormal handful of seconds. As is the fact that if her dearest friends knew any of the other facts, they would undoubtedly report her to the secret police to be beheaded in the town square at first light.
In some ways it’s precisely that naivety on Nona’s part, the burbling, affectionate, achingly honest voice in which Muir lays out the realities of her wildly original world plainly for the first time, that makes the book so enthralling. In its best moments (of which there are many), it evokes the heady, horror-infused worldbuilding of a Neil Gaiman novel with an Ursula Le Guin-esque willingness to drop the epic in favor of a poignantly personal story. And where Muir’s complete disregard for exposition — unexplained passage about a shield wall made of inside-out cows, I’m looking at you — has at times frustrated me in the past, here it only adds to the effect. I still have no idea what’s going on, but neither does Nona, because it doesn’t really matter. The book may be a war novel hiding inside a space opera hiding inside a murder mystery hiding inside a 1425-pages-and-counting ballad about space necromancers, but, in the end, it’s really about scared kids hiding in the dark, holding each other as they listen to the shells burst overhead.
In one of the many epic speeches that close the book — and make no mistake, the slow burn that is most of this installment does not mean that there aren’t epic feats of valor by the end — Commander We Suffer orders her troops to follow Protocol One. “It is used,” she says, “in times of either terrible joy or the worst possible outcomes. Protocol One means there are no more formal orders — if given in the field of battle, often it is understood as ‘Scatter. Retreat. Disunite,’ but it is not quite that. There is a different protocol that is simply used for retreat, protocol that means ‘Save yourselves.’ I received the order to save myself when I was young … and I saved myself, which is why you hear me now, starting this terrible truck, putting my life’s work in the hands of my enemies and of strangers I do not understand. But now I give you Protocol One…and Protocol One is ‘Live.’”
That speech, I think, defines Nona the Ninth. It’s a book that lacks the order and sense of drive that filled its predecessors, and certainly a story of the worst possible outcomes. But it is, nevertheless, full of joy, terrible and otherwise. It’s a book about the audacity of love, and about what it means to choose to live, even when the forces of death are literally pounding at the barricades. For Muir, it’s clear, there are no more formal orders, and she’s used that freedom to create a voice so ready to love, and so achingly eager to live every precious day, that it is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking. It will leave you gasping, laughing, and quite possibly crying onto the pages — it certainly did me. But it will also change the way you look at the world. The best books always do.
P.S. — If I collected pretty words, this series would be a collector’s item. My favorites this time around: guerdon, munted, parthenogenesis, pyrophoric, indefatigable, chthonic, and cetacean. Seriously, who throws a word like chthonic into conversation just for fun? Tamsyn Muir, apparently. I am in awe.