In the two thousand and twenty-first year of our lord—in our year of plagues and fires, of insurrections and supply chain failures and anxious hope you’re staying safe! sign-offs—I received in my inbox an early copy of Nona the Ninth, the next book in Tamsyn Muir’s beloved Locked Tomb series.
I did what any of us would do: loaded it onto all my devices, bragged a lot online, explained the entire publishing industry to my baffled neighbors so I could brag in person, replied to the editor with a criminal number of exclamation points, and then—
Didn’t read it. I just… let it sit there, like a wrapped birthday present, for days and days.
Now, partly, I think it was just the nervous weight of my own anticipation. Like, I follow the hashtags and text theories to my suffering, saintly brothers. I have this little fan-made animation bookmarked. I’ve listened to the audiobooks more than twice. I haven’t fallen this hard for a series since I was a teenager—but when I was a teenager I had the unswerving faith of the ignorant, and now I have anxiety. What if Nona let me down?
The other problem, though, was the entire world. It is, as many smarter people have said, very bad and getting worse. Anyone reading this has spent the last couple of years surviving an interconnected series of mass death events—pandemics, wars, climate emergencies, etc. As fun and funny as these books are, the Nine Houses are functionally an imperial death cult formed among the bones of murdered worlds; Harrow and Gideon are the victims and weapons of a pseudo-religion that harvests the energy of violent death; Gideon the Ninth ended in terrible loss and Harrow the Ninth was a five-hundred-page portrait of grief. So, you know, yikes.
And like, I was sort of right: Nona is still a Locked Tomb book. It has grief. It has loss and cruelty and violence. It also has most of the other ingredients we’ve come to expect and adore from this series: exquisite meme deployment; sick necro fights; sick sword fights (there is a duel that I, personally, have been waiting for since Canaan House); a running joke about the sentience of cattle that made me hoot aloud, like a pleased ape; an epilogue designed to make you scream, cry, throw up, etc.; eye color shenanigans; ongoing efforts to attack and dethrone god; an explicit countdown to an event that will still, somehow, surprise you; the lowering sense that very important things are happening which you are slightly too stupid to catch on the first read; acts of heart-rending sacrifice; a cast of extremely dangerous and hot women and a narrator who thinks those two things are synonymous.
But it also has something the other books didn’t: Nona herself.
I won’t spoil her identity—a layered mystery that took me three-quarters of the book to solve—but she moves through the world as a child. She has a child’s memory (hazy, selective), a child’s interest in the future (limited to the guest list for her birthday party), a child’s genius and ignorance and fearsome curiosity.
There were no children in the previous two books. There were no animals or pets, either, or fried food stands or shitty upstairs neighbors or black-market cigarettes or any of the ordinary mess of living. But Nona is positively bursting with life, from kids to rebels to six-legged dogs.
After the sterility of those first two books, simply existing in a living world feels like indulgence, like sensory excess. Nona adores her world, luxuriates in all the weird smells and swear words and dirty t-shirts, the intricate hierarchies of the schoolground and her own reflection in the mirror. She’s not stupid—she’s a child of a war zone, born in the middle of a slow-moving apocalypse—and still, Nona delights. Nona enjoys.
But most of all, Nona loves. She loves Noodle the dog and Hot Sauce the child and she especially loves her family—the two (or three, technically) adults who function as her parents, handlers, aunts, and friends. And she bears witness to the love between them all, joyfully, without an adult’s envy or pride or desire to ask so…are you two…?
All the relationships in the Locked Tomb are messy triads, fascinating little triptychs built out of chivalric love, romantic love, horniness, friendship, fealty, admiration, and sheer angst. But through Nona’s eyes all these shades of desire and loyalty are revealed for what they actually are: permutations of love.
Which is pretty cheeseball of me but not that cheeseball, because love is awful, actually. It’s a tie that binds, an indelible weight, a terrifying mutual ownership. “Love and freedom don’t coexist,” says one character, and she’s right. Because—and here’s the line that left me sobbing on the floor—“life is too short and love is too long.” We outlast one another. We die and go on loving, and isn’t that a bitch, and isn’t that beautiful.
And isn’t it something—really something!—that here at the messy and exhausting end of the world, while we all rush around buying groceries and paying rent on the optimistic assumption that we’ll survive whatever modest apocalypse comes next–there are still children. And dogs. And t-shirts with dirty slogans and people we love and books like this one, which will make you cry and tell you lies but—I swear—will neither give you up, nor let you down.
Alix E. Harrow is an ex-historian with lots of opinions and excessive library fines, currently living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral children. She won a Hugo for her short fiction, and has been nominated for the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.