As normality gradually returns to our lives, it can be strange to reflect on our year spent in disorienting purgatory. As the summer of 2020 flew past with all the sweaty horror of a packed tube carriage in July, humanity was granted an uncomfortable amount of time to confront our own emotional states before we arrived at the next stop. For me, revelation came in the form of a book series—The Locked Tomb by Tamsyn Muir. Consisting of three books: Gideon the Ninth, Harrow the Ninth, and a forthcoming conclusion, the series blindingly defies genre conventions to deliver a story with massive emotional weight. Exactly one year since I read the first instalment and eight months since the second was released, the series continues to occupy my attention with outstanding characters, a mesmerising world and enough tricks left up its sleeve for a satisfying conclusion.
The story takes place in the interplanetary Empire of the Nine Houses—certainly more fiction than science, but with enough faux-science to make its magic system believable and morbidly fascinating. The ninth of these houses clings to a frigid rock millions of miles from its sun, and hosts a cult of goths focussed on the worship of the locked tomb: an enigmatic structure that supposedly contains the greatest enemy of God the Emperor. For the tomb to open would naturally mean the end of civilisation. Gideon Nav, our protagonist, cares little for millenarian death cults, and is more interested in impressing beautiful women, joining the imperial military and expressing her hatred for her arch-rival Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Harrowhark, heir to the Ninth House and fellow protagonist, shares this distaste. The two are not left long to languish in mutual loathing, however, as an unexpected divine summons calls them to the far-off First House, seat of the Emperor. The pair (the only two members of the Ninth House younger than sixty) are forced to cooperate as a swordswoman-necromancer duo, competing against the other noble heirs of the empire to solve puzzles, meet God, and gain immortality.
As the quotation on the covers proudly states, this series is very, very gay. Gideon, despite her comic-inspired fantasies, finds herself completely out of her depth surrounded by intelligent and beautiful women—a shortcoming with drastic ramifications later in the story. This series is certainly not a romance, however, and Gideon’s fumbling interactions provide a backdrop to the central relationship between herself and Harrow. This dynamic is far more complex. Far from the typical ‘enemies to lovers’ trope, the central relationship is nuanced and remarkably chaste—exploring the character’s entangled backstories, mutually reinforcing trauma and intense (if ill-defined) feelings. Indeed, the series explores relationships of all kinds in a depth rarely seen in fiction. From married couples, to sibling relationships, to polyamory and platonic friendship, the series provides a fascinating exploration of the different ways in which humans love, made possible by the singular writing style of the author. For aromantic readers like myself, Muir’s stubborn refusal to be contained by romantic tropes is a blessing.
This is not the only way in which Muir’s prose shines. Stemming from her background in horror fiction, her detailed understanding of human anatomy brings the magic of the series to life in colourful and gory detail. Necromancy—the ability to control flesh, bone and the spirits of the dead—feels like it should be a real science, with a remarkably coherent internal logic. Muir is also unafraid to poke fun at her characters, jovially acknowledging the points where they play to tropes, but sprinkling enough detail to make even the most minor character feel real and fleshed-out. She presents each character with the tongue-in-cheek air of someone introducing a close friend, indicative of a level of depth that makes them easy to fall in love with. Muir displays a masterful control of tension in some truly terrifying sequences, and her action scenes are fantastically written and never confusing. Horror and violence are counterbalanced by exceptional dialogue, particularly in the many dinner parties and balls of the series. Often remarked upon by reviewers is Muir’s frequent invocation of online memes. For some, this may wound immersion, but it is refreshing to see twenty-first century, dadaist internet humour used openly and well, rather than wheeled out for one or two cringe gags before being shamefully stowed away. The mix of classical reference, biblical quotation and memes is the kind of pretentious fruit salad that I think must appeal to typical Oxford students.
Reading The Locked Tomb left me with the impression of a story that profoundly channels the contemporary zeitgeist. A world in which traditional relationship structures and ideas about love have been radically upended, twinned with a creeping sense of apocalyptic doom, speaks to the modern world, for some reason. This is a story about love, death and grief—themes that it explores in refreshing and nuanced ways, without relying on romantic, tragic, or ‘bury your gays’ cliches. So, if you wish to juxtapose the May weather with something slightly darker and more haunting, do give the series a try. Hopefully you find it as revelatory as I did.