*Looks around sneakily*
Mild spoilers for the series in the review, more pressing ones have had the whiteout treatment.
Yeah, split me Tipex.
Oh look, it’s a surprise book! When I first picked up Gideon the Ninth a few years back, it was advertised as being part one of a trilogy. And when Harrow The Ninth was released, we were all assured it was two down and one to go. But then just over a year ago, there was the announcement that we were getting an extra entry: the last book had split at the seams, apparently, and we were going to get a book focused on Nona.
Except we had not been introduced to a Nona?
For anyone who has read my reviews of the previous two books, you would know that I am an unabashed fan of this series. Huge. It tickles a spot that almost nothing else reaches. But I have also read a number of other book series where books were split and new entries added—with authors that include George RR Martin, Isabelle Carmody and most recently, Jim Butcher—and it is not always a resounding success. So I didn’t come in with 100% unguarded optimism.
But for the most part, I did enjoy the unexpected book about the unexpected girl.
The two previous books in the Locked Tomb Trilogy (Series) were quite different from each other. So I was not surprised that Nona The Ninth also proved to be quite distinct. But what I was surprised about was how slow and gentle it was at the start. At the end of the last book, the fates of both Gideon and Harrow were left unclear, and much of the supporting cast were scattered. Six months down the track, Camilla, Palamedes and Pyrrha—who certainly were not together at the end of Harrow—are camping out on a whole new planet looking after… someone? Someone who is inhibiting Harrow’s body. But they may or may not be her. They may or may not be Gideon. Everyone is mystified. Including Nona.
We should be used to Tamsyn Muir making bold choices with regard to her writing, but this is the second time that we have been given a possibly amnesiac protagonist in this series. And the third time that we are reading from the perspective of someone who does not really grasp what is going on around them. Gideon was a not-terribly book-smart girl surrounded by a bunch of super nerds, while Harrow was a traumatised baby-lyctor suffering from sanity slippage. Nona? Nona is a blank slate with six months of scribbles. Nona had to be taught to walk and talk and dress herself less than half a year ago. Nona is naive and loving and travels through the world with the wonder of a child. Nona thinks she’s the best looking girl around and has an almost impossibly high sense of self worth. Nona has to be talked into eating breakfast every morning. And talked out of eating sand.
Nona is also oddly indestructible. Nona can understand every language everyone speaks to her. And Nona is a sight to behold when angry:
“Nona had thrown exactly two tantrums in her entire life. She couldn’t remember anything about the first one, but Pyrrha had told her about it. Pyrrha had been laughing with her mouth, but not with her eyes: her eyes had been very brown and distant and uneasy, as though this tantrum had reminded Pyrrha of something her brain didn’t want to bring back.”
Otherwise, Nona is childish girl who works as a teachers aid, loves dogs, loves school and dreams of having a birthday party. And all of this is despite her, Camilla, Palamedes and Pyrrha all living in a war zone. From the ominous blue glowing sphere in the sky, the floods of refugees, and the violence on the streets, Nona is just not picking up on the surrounding hostility. Which is impressive, because even the school’s students know more than she does. The tension is all in the background, and the reader is more aware than Nona for most of the book, which is anxiety inducing.
And this is where my main complaint stands: this state of affairs went on too long. Yes, a quiet start can be very effective in setting the stage— Way Station by Clifford Simak is a masterful example of this—but the apartment and school life setting is highly detached from anything we had seen previously. And while there were some familiar faces to help keep us anchored, a lot of the new cast was not holding my attention. I liked the school’s science teacher, The Angel, very much and I was fond of the young girl with the unlikely name of Hot Sauce. But maybe it’s due to me not being much of small child kid of person, but I felt too much time was spent with the school students with very little in the way of immediate award. Maybe their presence will be important later, but otherwise, it wasn’t holding me. And while the setting has its own merits, I was kind of missing the gothic bone vibe from earlier in the series.
Another issue is that while Nona is sweet and Nona is quite endearing, Nona has not been the main thing on my mind. Since the end of Harrow the Ninth, I have been very preoccupied with what the fuck went on with the resurrection. This is one of the more cryptic elements of the Locked Tomb series, and fertile ground for a lot of mad theorising. The combined effect of finishing Harrow on a massive cliffhanger and then having the first part of the next book dangled in front of my nose (Clever, Tor) really set my brain into high gear. And so my most pressing questions were not about Nona; my attention kept on drifting in the direction of someone else.
I need to talk about John. I really need to talk about John. And there will be whitespace, because everything is a little too spoiler-y. But please indulge me while I talk about John.
Between some of our Nona-based chapters, we are shown scenes of John talking about his past to another person. We are initially told this is Harrow—but it’s not as clear cut as that. It’s also really unclear when and where these conversations are happening. What is clear, however, is that The Man Who was God and the God Who was Man needs a bloody therapist. Badly. For most of Harrow the Ninth, John was one of the more interesting side characters, but he really didn’t grab my attention and force my focus on him until the very last act of the book. Which, you’ll remember, is where he went Complete Dickhead. Suddenly, the King of Worst-Best memes became one of the most compelling characters in the series. And praise to Muir’s writing here, because while not a lot of page-space was directly dedicated to John’s background in Harrow, I was able to guess a lot of John’s history correctly from the little breadcrumbs she left behind.
I got his nationality right, his background right, and I had a pretty good stab at his pre-God career too. And no, this last one is not the entire reason I have more empathy for the man that I perhaps should I also had a vague idea of how shit went down before he became God, which also, broad stokes considered, was roughly correct. Once I decided that the antipode-isms in Harrow the Ninth were not a conceit, a lot of things fell into place pretty quickly. John’s story is no longer subtly hinted at; these chapters are the most direct the series has been since Gideon the Ninth.
Two big things really stood out concerning John’s story: the end of the world as we know it was chaos from start to finish, and that the palette used to paint the broad strokes of the backstory is composed of shades of grey. I wont lie: John is not a great guy, and he often veers towards awful. But what we are getting here with John is not an Ianthe Tridentarius dreadful for the sheer joy of being dreadful kind of situation. This is a whole new brand of dreadful brought on by a ride on the trauma-coaster that no one could get off.
The sheer ambiguity of the whole story is fascinating: Just how culpable is John? He has to shoulder the lion’s share of the blame, but how much or what percentage is up for debate. Imagine an Earth that is in even more dire straits than what we are experiencing now, to the point that people are trying to desperately arrange an exodus off-planet. Then imaging being fucked over again, and again, and again by a bunch of shadowy, thinly veiled Peter Thiel expys. If this is meant to mirror real-life New Zealand, then we can assume that these are all rich fucks who bought their way over. And being an indigenous guy, this probably hurts John twice over.
Then something starts giving him—or perhaps bestowing him—with strange powers. He’s a guy who repeats, over and over, that he was never really good with change, that he dislikes things he can’t understand; now he’s drawn into something that changes him in ways that defy any kind of rational explanation. The people who he surrounds himself with for support are sadly just as flawed as he is. Sometimes they pull the reins about his choices, and rightfully so, because John starts acting off from very early on. But then these very same people decide to rob graveyards and encourage him to livestream some corpse-pupptry on twitch in the name of trying to ‘help’. Everything, it seems, is way too much for everyone and no one is in their right mind. A confluence of things lead to the end of the world. And John made many Bad Choices. But I think most people would have also have faltered at some similar point too.
Sure, some of the things that John pulls are very sinister—“Come on, love. Guys as careful as me don’t have accidents,” in particular, was chilling. But from all the little anecdotes he relies about his friends and his stories from when he was a kid, we are reminded that no matter how quickly he skidded and tumbled down the slippery slope, John was just once a regular bloke. One that was kind of funny and that you could connect with:
“Ulysses was for a dog my nana had when I was a child. I worshipped that dog. He was the bravest dog I’d ever met. Half Chihuahua, half pug. Nan called him Ulysses S. Grunt. Died from eating too much pizza. The dog, I mean. Nan died of pneumonia when I was a teenager.”
However, it still stands that with regards to his followers, John lied. We know he lies. But I think he might’ve been accused of lying about the wrong thing.
Now with all that being said: while I have some empathy, I’m not feeling forgiving about what happened to Melbourne. Dickhead.
For those that don’t want to spoilt: John has a beef. A real big beef. Enough beef to be seen from space. Literally. Now we know where all the right beef from that pizza went. And it remains to be seen just how much of this is justified, or will Alecto the Ninth show us a whole new abattoir.
Someone else who needs a mention here and, trust me, I feel I can talk about her without smothering the page in white space, is Pyrrha. My god, I love her. Even though her situation is one of the more tragic in what is really a tragic book, Pyrrha is the absolute shit and charming as all get out. I would love to get a birthday present from Pyrrha. I would cherish a birthday present from Pyrrha. And my love of it would be unironic.
Now who was it based on? Freddy Mercury or Super Mario?
But to bring attention back to Nona: the slower, more gentle part of the story does not last. The change in gear is no nowhere as extreme as that of Harrow the Ninth, but things start picking up very quickly, and the backend of the book is a wild ride. But it still remains that it’s slow start and lack of tie in between the John and Nona chapters means that it does not flow as well as the previous two, nor does it feel quite as thematically complete. It’s still a very good entry into the series and perhaps a better example of splitting than the ones I listed previously, but the lack of cohesion does hurt it.
Despite this, the anticipation that I have been left with for the final book is quite something. It looks like shit will hit the fan in a spectacular fashion and I am here for it.
So a second cryptic half-spoilery mood board. As an apology. For the white out:
…they do make sense, really.
And for fans of the Audiobook—Moira Quirk is still excellent. A certain character’s return is indicated a little earlier in the Audio version because Quirk’s voice for them is so distinct…
For Bingo, this is Bodies. Bodies, bodies everywhere and I am blaming YOU, John