Michaele Jordan Review: The Trilogy of the Ninths

Review by Michaele Jordan: You may recall (or maybe not) that back in November, I started writing up the (presumed) Hugo nominees.

Upon returning from a happy trip to the library, I picked up Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir first. It happened to be on the top of the stack. Surprise! It turned out to be the third part of a trilogy. So I sighed, logged into the library, and requested a hold on Gideon the Ninth. I was not happy to learn that it was out, and that I was not the first hold waiting for it.

By the time I had read all the other nominees, and written them up to share with you, Gideon the Ninth was still unavailable. As was Harrow the Ninth. Did I mention this started in November? Because I have only just now finished Nona the Ninth. May I tell you about this trilogy? I’ve waited so long.

Gideon the Ninth is an excellent book, which in the beginning could pass as pure SF. It’s set in a multi-planet empire, with a single household controlling each of eight planets. They planets are labeled Second through Ninth. No first is designated, but all eight are ruled by the House of the Emperor, the King Undying, the Necromancer divine, whose court is at Canaan House. Since this all reads like SF at first, the reader might take the terms Undying and Necromancer as symbolic titles. But they soon prove to be literal.

The story opens with the Ninth House, in company with the other Houses, receiving a call from the Emperor for each household to send him a necromancer and a cavalier, as candidates to become lyctors, i.e., his personal guards and servants. The Ninth House sends their Reverend Daughter Harrowhark and her Cavalier Gideon Nav to Canaan House.

The Ninth House is a very dark place. Their planet is furthest from the sun. They paint their faces like skulls, and wear black robes. They are the Keepers of the Locked Tomb, the Black Vestals, and are viewed by the other Houses with a superstitious dread. Which is saying a lot in a culture ruled by necromancers. Each House specializes in its own branch of death magic. The Ninth house specializes in the raising and controlling of skeletons.

So sixteen necromancers and cavaliers gather in Canaan House and lose themselves in its nooks, crannies and mazes. And they begin to die. I wouldn’t dream of telling you more.

Harrow the Ninth: The book opens with Harrowhark in a nearly moribund state on the starship Erebos, the Emperor’s flagship. The only person she recognizes there is Ianthe, one of her fellow candidates from Volume One. They have passed their trials and been appointed lyctors.

The story seems at first to be a continuation of the first volume. But almost immediately Harrowhark reflects on a memory which gives a very different version of the past than what we saw in Volume One. She also remembers sneaking into the Locked Tomb as a child. Ever since she’s been followed by the body (the very beautiful body) which she saw there ever since.

Lyctors from before her time appear, along with their emperor-god, John. They are assembling for the funeral of Cytheria, another of the ancient lyctors. (One of them immediately starts trying to kill Harrowhark for no apparent reason).

They are on their way to the emperor-god’s stronghold. There’s about to be a terrible war. (That’s why the emperor needed more lyctors, who – upon surviving the tests and the initiation – acquire numerous powers and become virtually immortal.) The Revenant Beast is coming. Number Seven (presumably a forerunner or an aspect of the Revenant Beast) is already on the outskirts of the system.

There’s no point in even trying to outline the story, even assuming it’s possible. The above-mentioned swapping of the history is just the beginning. Ms. Muir throws so many reality shifts at the reader that it’s like a game of Chutes and Ladders. Characters change names without warning or visible reason. Often there are two characters in any given body. The other characters recognize them by their eyes. (Apparently, even when body swapping, they take their eyes with them). And credit where due, all characters seem to have VERY exotic eyes.

There is lots of fighting as the enemy draws near but, strangely, it feels distant, at least as long as it stays outside the ship. Some enemy forces called Heralds get on board, and they are very cool – sort of giant mechanical insects. And then they all fall into the river.  There’s no need to avoid spoilers here – By this point, I don’t know myself what’s going on.

Nona the Ninth: The final volume! Or no? Several notes indicate that Ms. Muir originally intended the 3rd volume to be titled Alecto the Ninth.  And in fact, at the end of the book Ms. Muir acknowledges that she was supposed to be writing Alecto the Ninth but somehow ended up writing Nona the Ninth instead. She still intends to write Alecto the Ninth. (Spoiler alert: I won’t be reading it.)

At first there is no apparent connection this narrative and the two that preceded  it. It opens in an urban environment, with cars and schools, etc. There is a war going on nearby and there are sirens and blackouts and refugees. Our protagonist Nona is a young girl with an unusually childlike mentality. (The issue of her age is never fully resolved.) She lives with two caretakers (maybe two and a half – two of them are sharing a single body). The names, at least, are familiar: Camilla, Palamedes and Pyrrha. They are all characters from Volume Two.

Nona’s primary interests in life are the neighborhood dogs, and her position as a Teacher’s Aide at her school.

At intervals a narration labeled John is inserted, presumably written by the emperor-god from the previous books. This is always a simple third-person passage, with no names given, describing the historic events that changed our world into the one seen in Volumes One and Two. They tell of strange experiments, of John acquiring peculiar powers, and of public responses to those powers.

After a lot of running around within the ever-encroaching war zone, the narrative drifts to a stop that cannot be described as an ending, tangled in an attempt to introduce Alecto, even at this late date.

All in all, I cannot recommend this trilogy. Volume One (Gideon) is a very good classic SF novel. You can read it independently – it is complete and has an ending. Volume Two (Harrow) is okay, albeit extremely challenging. As for Volume Three (Nona) – and I must apologize in advance to anyone who disagrees because they’ll be in my face, and I don’t want a war – Volume Three is a mess, ranging from boring to opaque.

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18 thoughts on “Michaele Jordan Review: The Trilogy of the Ninths

  1. I’ve read a few books and series recently where the ambition of the author has exceeded their writing capacity (at least in my reading, as always, YMMV is a big thing). alas!

  2. I read the first and couldn’t get through the second. Just not my cup of tea.

  3. I read summary-reviews of the first two, and couldn’t see any reason to read the books. Very much not my cuppa!
    ETA: Reading the summary-reviews, it was a lot of “why am I supposed to care about these people”.

  4. I read the first book as a pretty solid initial offering; the second book is swamped by other memories, so I only vaguely recall bits of it, leading me to read the third book as a stand-alone, which actually wasn’t too bad. There’s a story in there, even if it wasn’t what the author originally promised.

  5. As a big fan of the series, I’m sorry to see a negative review. That being said, it’s easy for me to understand that the Locked Tomb (as the set is known) is not remotely everyone’s cup of tea.

    First off, this is not straight SF, but calling it fantasy doesn’t feel right, either. Tamsyn Muir takes a universe very much like ours and injects or overlays a system of magic tied to life, death, and souls – necromancy. If this kind of mixing bothers you, you probably won’t like this series.

    Second, Muir came of age deeply immersed in early 2000’s internet culture (especially Tumblr) and she deliberately injects slang, memes and jokes from that period. That throws some people right out of the story, but I enjoyed it immensely.

    Third, the books are very complex. Questions pop up constantly and answers come rarely and partially. Muir also tells her story from the POV of characters with extremely limited information and even mental illness. The character’s confusion isn’t just described (and this is where Muir scores a remarkable achievement as an author, IMO), it’s a key feature. All the other characters know things the POV doesn’t. Rarely, they explain, sometimes they imply, but mostly they just move through the story in ways that reflect that knowledge. In every case, once a key point is explained, going back through the book shows that everything the characters did or said was consistent with that explanation. (A huge deception is revealed late in one book. “I never lied,” says the deceiver. Re-reading shows this is true – but everything they said is very different in the light of the deception.)

    I strongly recommend Gideon the Ninth, with the understanding that some people will bail on it. If you do try it, enjoy it, and pick up Harrow the Ninth, prepare to be deeply confused. This is absolutely Muir’s intention and the reason is eventually revealed. Nona the Ninth is confusing for different reasons, but not as difficult as Harrow. The series is not complete. We fans are still waiting for Alecto the Ninth. In the meantime, I’ve found re-reading to be immensely rewarding as later material throws light on events and conversations from the earlier texts.

  6. I am also somewhat disappointed by the negative review: speaking just for myself, I devoured this series, reading all three currently available books in less than 3 days. However, like other commenters, I can at least understand where you’re coming from as the three books – despite being part of the same series – are all quite different from one another in both form and tone. I’d like to try to elaborate on that if anyone is interested:

    Rather than as straight SF, I read Gideon the Ninth as almost a Gothic murder mystery: yes, there is a galaxy-spanning empire set thousands of years in the future relative to the present day; yes, there is a god emperor that rules over empire and an almost feudal, Dune-style system of houses that rule entire planets; and yes, necromancy – literal necromancy – is as commonplace as space travel, at least for the main cast of characters. However, none of that really plays a large role in GtN. Just like any good Gothic work, GtN combines several quintessential elements: a drafty old castle, filled with reminders of a distant past; seemingly supernatural events leading to the deaths of several characters; cryptic messages and secret passages; fear, distrust, and suspicion. Looking at the novel through this lens, I’d agree with the review that GtN is largely successful as a standalone work: by the end, many – crucially, not all – threads of the plot have been successfully wrapped up, and even what is left won’t leave you feeling that the story is incomplete.

    The second book in the series, Harrow the Ninth, is a wildly different beast. As the review indicated, this book shifts protagonists from Gideon to Harrowhark and that shift is accompanied by a variety of other shifts that are deliberately designed to disorient the reader: Harrowhark remembers the events of the first book very differently from what is presented by Gideon, in some cases remembering entirely different characters that Gideon never mentioned; HtN is told through a non-linear structure, where the reader is constantly jumping back and forth through time – these flashbacks don’t even happen “chronologically” and thus the reader is tasked with disentangling what exactly happened and in what order [although I submit that the sequence of events does become explicitly clear towards the end of the novel]; finally, the book makes use of a literal shift in perspective by switching between the third-person limited point of view and the second-person point of view. While much of the story flows consistently as a logical extension of the first (there are many returning characters, or characters that were mentioned in GtN but finally get to show up on the page; the story expands on plot points that were left unresolved in the first book as it introduces new ones; the story continues to be broadly ‘Gothic’ in the sense that it takes place in a single location, there are unexplained supernatural events happening, and so on), taken holistically, this book can come off as quite confusing. For me, this kind of literary chaos was wonderful: I love being surprised as I’m reading, and the buildup to the final, big reveal near the end of the book was absolutely worth the price of admission. This is my favorite book in the series, but somewhat paradoxically I also totally understand if people are turned off by it within the first few chapters.

    The third book in the series, Nona the Ninth, is also a very different beast. We shift to another new protagonist, Nona, who we have never met before; the story takes place in what is essentially a refugee camp on a planet we’ve never been to before; there is an obvious jump in time from the end of HtN that is rarely addressed and even more rarely explained. Nona spends much of the book hanging out with elementary-age children, going to school, and thinking about dogs. Near the halfway-point in the book, the plot really starts to kick off as many characters from GtN and HtN begin to converge, which for me drew questions about why the book needed to exist. As the review indicates, the third book in the series was supposed to be Alecto the Ninth and Tamsyn Muir ended up writing Nona instead. NtN provides many, many details about some of the deeper lore of the series, addressing things that were left merely implied even as far back as GtN while also giving characters other than Gideon and Harrowhark more time to shine. In this respect, NtN is a welcome addition to the series even if it does end on a hall of a cliffhanger. NtN is also a more “traditional” book in that it does far less in the way of non-linear storytelling and POV shenanigans, being more similar to GtN than HtN in that respect. I almost agree with the review that NtN comes off as boring at times; but like one of the other reviewers, I have found a lot of pleasure in re-reading the series and picking up on some extremely subtle details that only really make sense as part of a re-read.

  7. These books are not to everyone’s liking, but I’m in the “pro” camp. I liked Gideon the first time I read it, but LOVED it on a second read; as may have alluded to Muir does an absurdly good job at sprinkling in foreshadowing that is either intriguingly opaque or goes completely unnoticed at first, and gives repeat reads so much depth.

    Reading Harrow or me was the definition of “trust the process”; it thoroughly confused me at first but I just rode the wave of WTF with the hope that eventually things would come together – and boy did they. I was also impressed by the structural risks that Muir took in this book (AUs of her own book within the book itself?? The rewriting of GtN?? I mean come on) – I think they paid off extremely well, and I think (hope) there will be even more payoff once the last book of the series is released.

    Nona did disappoint me somewhat, I won’t lie. I also think I will find more to appreciate on a re-read here (I have only read it the once so far), but when I’m waiting so desperately for resolution I was frustrated to once again essentially start over with a new POV, especially one so oblivious to all the things that I, as reader, care most about. I do suspect it would have been better kept to something like novella length but may also come to feel differently once the series is complete.

    Ultimately, I think how successful these books are or aren’t hinges very heavily on how Muir sticks the landing with Alecto. I confess to a little more worry about that now than when I started the books (given my feelings about Nona, and the complete lack of any news about Alecto) but it remains background level for now.

  8. I thought Gideon was well written and I could see why people nominated it for a Hugo. Didn’t read the second book. Got to enjoying and caring about the YA character at the heart of the third book. But it was plain from the John entries along the way that the story I was interested in was not the “real” story, which annoyingly didn’t start til late in the book and apparently is reserved for a book to come. I didn’t like having the character I invested in be annihilated, and I didn’t like being left with an IOU for the real story. Not that the latter isn’t a very common problem with series in general.

  9. I’m actually almost done reading the first book. My circle of friends has been absolutely raving about this series for several years, now, and I’m … I’m not seeing it. It’s not bad, it’s just not for me.
    It sounds like the second and third books will be even less for me than the first. I think I’ll save my time – and I thank you for the (extremely timely) review. I’ll move on to something else when I’m done.

  10. I’ve read the first two books and was thoroughly confused at various points (though I was very impressed by the author’s ambition when I figured out that the confusion in the second book was deliberate). A third book with another different approach sounds interesting. I’ll probably give it a shot (when I get through my Hugo reading!)

  11. I loved all three books in this series. Possibly because I spend so much time reading things my teenage students can sink their teeth into, I deeply appreciate a book I have to stretch to keep up with. Sorting out the truths behind the surface confusions was great fun for me, and even when I had figured some things out, the big reveals always carried multiple new surprises. Then again, I’m one of those people who’s read the Silmarillion five times for fun, so yeah, my mileage varies from most readers’.

  12. So, here’s the thing about Nona. It’s a very human book, told from the point of view of refugees surviving a crisis created by John the God and his Lyctors. I would argue that the Locked Tomb is an anti-colonialist narrative, and Nona exists in part to make it clear exactly what the real, human stakes are. I do love Gideon and Harrow, but all the swagger and complexity do somewhat paper over the fact that this is an empire entirely powered by death. Death of real people. At one point in Harrow we are told that John the God wears a crown made of the finger bones of babies. And my god, I’m not sure you could get any blunter about the fact that John IS NOT THE GOOD GUY, HERE. But because of the viewpoints and the balls-to-the-wall nature of the storytelling, I think it gets really easy to miss that this is a world that brutalizes real people. Nona brings it all home. Nona also gives us a glimpse of what people might look like if they weren’t raised in a highly abusive system. Nona’s kindness and innocence and charm are created, in part, because she has loving parents, something that none of the main characters in the first two books have. I think that Nona is disconcerting because it is such a tonal shift, but it is very much not a thematic shift.

  13. Agreeing with @Lydia Nickerson here- one if the vital things about Nona is it shows us exactly who the villain is, his own words. Self serving words, but if you step back, you can read the lines. I mean other people in the cast are pretty damn villainous, but their actions pale in perspective.

    This is not an easy series to read- it’s common on Reddit to have posts expressing confusion with what’s going on. And I tend to think the closest parallel with the Locked Tomb is the Next Wave in SF. I can imagine how confused people were by “Dhalgren”…

  14. @Rose Embolism

    Agreeing with @Lydia Nickerson here- one if the vital things about Nona is it shows us exactly who the villain is, his own words.”

    “C’mon love. Guys as careful as me don’t have accidents.”

    This is really a difficult series to read, and it has taken me multiple read throughs to really get it all.

  15. I spent a lot of time on my first and second read-throughs very very confused. Harrow, especially, was extremely hard to get through the first time, as it was baffling and I kept on feeling like I was going mad (which is also how Harrow felt, of course, which was kind of the point.) For me, the thing that kept me going, and kept me coming back, was how much I loved Gideon and Harrow. Nona was almost too easy to love. I remember remarking that I had not known that Muir could write about love and affection in uncomplicated ways, unsullied by power and trauma.

    The books work both as complicated puzzle boxes and as character-driven narratives, for me. I don’t read fanfic (much), but I feel like the Locked Tomb is a gift that the fanfic community has given me, and I’m so very grateful.

  16. I love epistolary storytelling, word puzzles, and onomatopoeia and this series has elements of all of it, along with something of a gonzo approach to anything like narrative truth. I’m definitely in the pro category, precisely because I was often confused and forced to hang on and trust the author. Not sure I’ll reread any of the books, because I’d miss the exhilaration, but am definitely looking forward to Alecto the Ninth.

  17. The first, gonzo as it was, was an easy read. The second almost bounced me out, but I was glad I hung on and finished it. The third left me hungry for the fourth. I plan to reread them all when publication of the fourth is near.

  18. Wow! Lots of comments, all interesting. I see most people did not agree with me, but — and I thank you for your graciousness — but nobody said I was crazy, and you all agreed that it was difficult to follow the later books. A number of you mentioned that you had gained most of your insights on a 2nd or even 3rd reading. I found that interesting. I rarely reread books that I don’t already love. Clearly, you were all very determined to figure out what the author was saying.
    (P.S. I never for a moment mistook John for a good guy.)

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