New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 19: Space Magic and Skeletons

Nona the Ninth, the third book in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, came out on Tuesday. I spent all last weekend rereading the previous two books in anticipation. I tore through Nona the way I usually tear through a first read of these books: hungrily, desperate to see what comes next, laughing out loud when a turn of phrase catches me by surprise. I’m still digesting everything that happened in this book, four days later; I’ll probably reread it at least once by the time the fourth book comes out next fall, if not again by the end of this year.

For the uninitiated: the Locked Tomb series (and specifically the first installment, Gideon the Ninth) has been described as “lesbian necromancers in space.” This is more or less accurate: it’s a sci-fi series that revolves around characters who are queer and/or have magical capabilities that allow them to manipulate the dead. It sounds dark—and the series does go to some seriously dark places—but the elevator pitch doesn’t capture just how funny the series is. Nor does it communicate just how intricate the world of the series is, nor what a rich wealth of influences Muir is drawing from. The level of detail and the depth and breadth of the allusions (from the Bible to internet memes) make my head spin; I find rereads to be rewarding for several different reasons.

Each book is told from the vantage point of a different unreliable narrator, and each one is unreliable for different reasons—because they simply don’t care about the magic that makes their world turn, because they’re lying to themselves, or, in Nona’s case, because they’re an actual child. If this isn’t your thing, the series won’t be your thing; it’s hard enough to keep the plot straight even when Muir is being straightforward. Each book ends up in a place I never expected it to go, and it always gets there in a roundabout way because the characters aren’t interested in cooperating with genre tropes. It’s not a puzzle box, either. It’s a story about galactic goings-on, focused only on the personal stakes of each narrator, and each narrator lives on the margins and in the shadows of their own stories.

Nona the Ninth is a digression in a series of digressions. I do mean that literally: the series was intended to be a trilogy, until the character of Nona came along and Muir decided to devote an entire book to her. Because Nona is a child, she’s even less aware of the machinations around her than her predecessors, and most of the plot is delivered through dialogue that Nona herself doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care about. I can see this being infuriating for some readers. I’ve seen some disappointment online from some fans of the series who were looking for more insight into how the world works, and who didn’t care for just how talky this installment is. I get that disillusionment, but for me, this is where my love for the series is really starting to kick into high gear. I like that Muir refuses to tell the same story twice, and I like that she’s committed to exploring her world and her characters from a different viewpoint every time.

Nona the Ninth also happens to be the book in the series where the jokey allusions start to fade into the background, and the literary and Biblical ones—which were more subtle at first—come to the fore. (I won’t spoil anything, but the allusions are there for those who want to see them; one character whose identity and state of being is fundamentally changed for the better elects to change their name to “Paul.”) The Locked Tomb series isn’t allegory or a retelling of Christian myth, but it is an exploration of power in a world where God is a literal necromancer. Ideas about death and resurrection and sacrifice were already going to carry a hint of the religious about them, and I for one am glad that Muir is committed to exploring and interrogating her world from the vantage points of the characters who least understand it, and who are most affected by the games the powerful play. I can’t wait to see how it ends.

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What I talked about:

This week on the Seeing and Believing podcast, Kevin and I reviewed The Silent Twins (out in theaters this weekend). It’s a biopic about Jennifer and June Gibbons, identical twins who grew up in Wales refusing to speak to anyone except each other. Eventually the two were institutionalized and separated. The movie attempts to explore their inner creative lives, even going so far as to incorporate the writing, poetry, and art that they made, but it doesn’t do a very good job of getting the audience inside its subjects’ heads.

We also talked about the (very good) 2007 movie The Savages, starring Laura Linney and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. I held the movie at arm’s length; Kevin got me to come around on it during the course of our conversation.

What I watched:

I finally made the time for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for years. Last weekend was gray and rainy and cool, the perfect weather for film noir, so I took the plunge. It’s great! It’s been great for nearly 80 years, and I don’t see that changing any time soon! Barbara Stanwyck can con me any time!

What I’m listening to:

Josh and I went to a The National show Friday. It felt so good to sing “everything I love is on the table / everything I love is out to sea” in a room full of strangers; I’ve been humming their songs all weekend ever since.

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