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Nona the Ninth

September 20, 2022

Usually I don’t read other reviews before writing my own, but I couldn’t help but notice that Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth, a sequel to Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, has been inspiring reviews full of jokes and references, sometimes even extending to the title, like:
Six Months, Five Days, One Tomb
Do Lyctors Dream of Undead Dykes?
Nona the Ninth is Too Much and Too Little
Although it’s possible I’m giving the “too much and too little” title credit for evoking the Wordsworth title “The world is too much with us, late and soon,” I think the way I’ve been enjoying the reviews is an indication that what Nona the Ninth gives us in the way of joy is contagious. This may be all you know on earth and all you need to know. (See?)

If we want to get into analysis, though, Nona the Ninth doesn’t go much of anywhere we haven’t already been. Told from the point of view of a character who isn’t in her original body and doesn’t know who she is, this novel takes us down from the celestial level we hit at the end of Harrow the Ninth. Nona seems to be a regular teenaged girl living in an end-of-days version of an earthlike planet. She likes dogs and she makes readers care about them, and about her family and the friends she’s made at school. This is definitely something that was missing from the first two novels in this series—the feeling that there are stakes for ordinary people.

The celestial-adjacent beings—Nona’s adult caretakers, Camilla, Palamedes, and Pyrrha—have conversations that she (and therefore we, the readers) overhear but do not completely understand. This is a great narrative choice, as it recapitulates some of the experience of most readers of this series. Early on, Pyrrha tells Palamedes that
“you should have heard the demo crew yesterday. These people are beside themselves waiting for kickoff, waiting for the Houses. One guy tells me this’ll all be over once the barracks get cleaned out, another guy tells me he’d welcome the Cohort regiment with open arms if they just brought supplies and broke up the gangs. Half my guys would strangle the other half on a pretext. This is what happens when you force refugees from twenty different planets to live cheek by jowl and you keep thinking people unify under a common threat….She always made that mistake. I told her twenty years ago. Works beautiful in the short-term, but you’ve got to give them a future to really keep ‘em glued.”
Interesting how a sense of the future is best provided by a religion, isn’t it?

Nona isn’t like other teenagers. We know this from the first, and it’s continually reiterated by what I find to be the strangest thing about her—she doesn’t like to eat; in fact, she actively dislikes it and tries to get out of doing it whenever possible. It’s not that she’s avoiding food because of any kind of control or body image issue, she’s just not interested in survival. And she really loves swimming in the ocean, more than anybody I’ve ever read about–almost as much as me—but it’s not clear why.

The most important way Nona is different is how she dreams. In her dreams, we get the backstory about how necromancy was created, and what it meant to John, the Creator. One of the most revealing things we learn about him comes about a third of the way into this novel, when he says that “when he was a kid he hated change, any change at all.” Certainly this is an impetus for necromancy, which is an attempt to arrest an inevitable change. Like all necromancers, John is unsatisfied with his results, saying “I couldn’t bring anyone back once they’d gone, just stop them from going if they were close. I could fix all the damage and even get the heart beating again and fix the brain. But there was nothing going on inside…they never talked, they never responded.”

We also learn about John’s good intentions. He says “we’d been going to save the world and then the cash dried up for no reason….But we’d scared a lot of people.” And, inevitably, we learn that the ends cannot justify the means, as John used necromancy to keep a dead leader as head of a government, just a couple of steps beyond what we can already do with photographs and recordings. What we learn about John in Nona’s dreams is that he thought his ends could justify the means. The end of his story about what seems to be earth will sound familiar to readers in a post-truth world:
“We’d tried to keep everything so clean-cut and scientific, but now we were streaming quicker than they could serve us subpoenas. End of the world is nigh, that kind of thing. Join us. Live forever. Your governments are lying to you. Before, when it started, I’d tried to use all these scientific terms—tried to coin phthinergy, talk about a word that needed an antihistamine. I’d tried to make out like everything I was doing had principles I was probably going to write papers on later. I dropped all that, because turns out nobody wants papers, nobody wants principles. They want the magic bullet. They just want to be saved.
He said, I told them I’d save them. And I said, I’m a necromancer.”

Nona keeps the novel grounded. We want to know who she is, and so does she, and the questions she thinks are important are “am I nice? Am I good-looking? Do I have lots of friends? Does everyone listen to me? How many legs do I have?” As a reader, I can never finish being charmed by Nona, especially when she gets to the question of “what if I don’t like me?”

If you’re reading this far, in the review and in the series, you’re probably already a fan of the absolutely bonkers way this story is told. Here’s one of my favorite parts:
“Like, what you’ve got to keep in mind is that we’ve got hundreds of cultists on both sides of the cow wall, and quite a lot of these guys are One Nation nutbars who think they’re going to see out the end of the world in a bunker and live to build a beautiful paradise that looks a hell of a lot like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. And these guys have illegal semiautomatics.”

We didn’t need another novel in this series about a character who is trying to figure out who she is, but readers who are loving it will find even more emotional stakes in the grounding this novel provides. Readers like me, who weren’t immediately charmed by the series, will be drawn further in…”till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2022 7:03 am

    COW WALL. I really loved all the jokes about cows. Sorry to cows. I know they can recognize each other.

    Do you think the book suggests that religion is the way to give people the sense of a future? I didn’t get that from it at all — it seemed to me that Pyrrha was just saying you can’t unite people by threatening them, only by giving them something to look forward to and hope for. I don’t think that has to be eternal life, though!!! And I don’t think the book thinks it has to be eternal life, either, but maybe I misread what you were saying.

    • September 21, 2022 7:37 am

      I agree that Pyrrha is saying you have to give people something to hope for. I do think, though, that history shows–and John is saying–that you’ve got to keep the people, well, cowed.

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