Are We the Baddies? Magic and Normativity in The Locked Tomb Series
Recently I was skimming through Tumblr—ever an excellent way of wasting time—when I scrolled to a post reacting to the book Nona the Ninth, the latest entry in Tamsyn Muir’s The Locked Tomb series, published last September. One particular part of this poster’s reaction stood out to me, a reaction that I will roughly paraphrase to, “Wait, are the necromancers in the series…actually the bad guys?”
For the uninitiated, there are many, many necromancers in The Locked Tomb series (and as Charles Stross’ cover blurb for the original entry also assures us, they are mostly lesbians and in space!). To those unfamiliar with the books, the answer to this question might feel obvious: Yes, the necromancers are probably the bad guys, right? That does tend to be the usual depiction when it comes to people who mess with the dead, or even just folks who wear a lot of skull paraphernalia. The guys that stick their fingers in dead bodies and puppet them around? It’s probable that they are up to no good and are, in fact, scheming to steal your liver as we speak!
[Spoilers for The Locked Tomb series below.]
But of course, I’m don’t bring this up to call the OP out for being confused about the obvious. Like me, they have read the books, and it sounds as though we had a similar experience with them. The first two entries in the series take place within John Gaius’ necromantic empire, and the second book is told from the perspective of a full-blown necromancer. Protagonist bias being what it is, readers learn to roll with necromancers’ weird activities and styles of dress. What seems normal to them becomes normal to us. Indeed, one of the central joys of the first book, Gideon the Ninth, is being taken along on the journey of slowly falling in love with the necromancer Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the “hideous witch from hell.” You just have to get to know her a bit.
Only in the third and most recent book does Muir take us out of the dominion of John’s empire and the upper echelons of its society, and onto a world bursting with refugees fleeing the conquest of his legions, a campaign only hazily alluded to heretofore. Now we see its consequences.
And so Nona lived with Camilla, Palamedes, and Pyrrha, on the thirtieth floor of a building where nearly everyone was unhappy, in a city where nearly everyone was unhappy, on a world where everyone said that you could outrun the zombies, but not forever. (Nona the Ninth, pg. 39)
So, yes, it is understandable that this would be the book where readers really start to grapple more seriously with the idea that the Nine Houses may be a less-than-righteous society. And yeah, maybe all the skulls and talk of “arterial blood” should have been a hint…
As a reader, there’s a funny sense of dissonance as you find yourself considering the idea that maybe the most stereotypically “evil” genre of magic could be the instrument of wickedness here too…but that is itself often the fun of books, both in fiction and nonfiction: discovering the gulf between how you expect to feel about something and what actually bubbles up when you face it on the page. Muir has created a universe in which we root for necromancers—and their cavaliers!—as naturally as we’d root for any other protagonist. Now in book three, she’s complicated that dynamic, pushing the world of necromancy away to the distance where it starts to look less familiar. At that point, we’re forced to reevaluate and ask, “Why necromancers? Why the kind of magic that bleeds and oozes?” It’s an invitation to think more deeply about the overall themes of the Locked Tomb books—about bodies, death, grief, and the boundaries we draw and then sometimes erase between ourselves and others.
And while we’re on the subject of necromancy, it always helps to dig a little deeper, because when we read about magic of any genre we are always implicitly confronting what we do and don’t expect, what we consider to be normal. So, let’s talk a little about what is magic, what is magical about necromancy, and how Muir’s Locked Tomb series incorporates the inherent strangeness of magic as a concept into its themes.
Magic is something which, by its nature, never becomes widely available to everyone. Magic is something that resides in the person and often is an indication that the universe sort of recognizes different classes of people, that there are magic wielders and there are non-magic wielders. That is not how we understand the universe to work nowadays. That reflects a kind of premodern understanding of how the universe worked.
Chiang defines magic here in opposition to technology (both real and science fictional), which he sees as more democratic, at least theoretically. It’s a good definition of the magic we find in fantasy fiction—largely accurate, I think, and pointing to an expressive feature of the common magic/non-magic divide: the idea that there is a natural class of special, powerful person, distinct from less special, less capable folks. Chiang’s definition deserves high marks for articulating that magic in stories is or can be “about” more than just what it is literally doing.
However, magic in fiction need not be limited to signifying the special, elevated class of people. Historically speaking, in the premodern times when our cultural notion of magic crystallized, this was not the case. In ancient Graeco-Roman contexts, magic was not even conceptualized as “residing in the person.” Spells, perhaps inscribed on sheets of lead, were thought to work by exhorting the power of some force external to the magician, maybe a ghost or demon or deity. The person who executed the spell might have special knowledge, training, or a relationship with a relevant supernatural power, but they were not thought to be innately magical themselves.
The problem here, you may note, is that exhorting a god for aid—well, that sounds like pretty basic religious behavior, no? And what of our potion-maker, be she fictional or a historical village witch, gathering and combining ingredients, experimenting to create desirable effects…is she not practicing a kind of science? Premodern people, with their premodern understanding of the universe, did distinguish between magic, natural science, and religion, but based on what criteria? The answer is, in a word, weirdness. Or, in a less glib word, non-normativity:
Someone who stitches up a cut or who goes into a temple to make a prayer is seen as acting in a normal and expected way, making use of normal scientific or religious patterns of action. By contrast, someone who cuts the throat of a puppy and burns it on a tombstone in the middle of the night is engaging in non-normative religious behavior, just as someone who smears the wound with a paste made from the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy, powdered rhino horn, and the intestines of a frog is engaging in non-normative scientific activity.” (Edmonds, Drawing Down the Moon, pg. 9)
Without getting too deep into the weeds on the scholarship of ancient magic, contemporary consensus seems to be settling around the idea that magic, as denoted by various terms, was a label that came into use for the purpose of distinguishing non-normative from normative behavior. Being non-normative or weird is not, of course, the only criterion necessary for something to register as magical. (Prancing and wobbling around like you’ve joined the Ministry of Silly Walks, for example, won’t cut it.) But delineating an activity as non-normative and thus separate from more acceptable, legitimized avenues of religious or medical practice was the original, overarching use of the category.
Turning our gaze back to the realm of contemporary fiction, which is what Chiang is talking about, we may wonder if the concept of magic is no longer doing the same work in our fantasy stories now as it historically has. For, as Chiang’s definition implies, a category that once applied primarily to outsider peoples and deviant behaviors appears to have been co-opted to describe not just an activity that is common—so many wizards in fantasy!—but an elect class of people, regarded not so much as deviant from average folks but better than them. (Obviously, there are many works in the wide canon of fantasy novels in which magic has been banned or marginalized, but I suspect that these tales are iterating on the more established classic fantasy model in which magic and its practitioners are a normal or integrated part of the fantasy society, your sage advisors like Merlin or Gandalf, your boy wizard heroes like Ged, even your early anti-heroes like Elric of Melnibone.)
Take a seminal work of fantasy fiction, for example: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, in which magic operates as the world religion, with mages serving as experts on the natural and spiritual state of the world. The Archmage, Sparrowhawk, is sort of analogous to the Pope, and is versed in social graces and affairs of state.
“‘You are the son of the Prince of Enlad and the Enlades,’ the Archmage said, ‘Heir of the principality of Morred. There is no older heritage in all Earthsea, and none fairer. I have seen the orchards of Enlad in spring, and the golden roofs of Berila….’” (The Farthest Shore, pg. 3)
In Le Guin’s fictional universe of Earthsea, then, magic does not signify any deviance, and while I have not done a thorough survey of genre, I would argue that, with notable exceptions, this dynamic holds for most of fantasy fiction. In fantasy stories magic may not always be common, but it is not strange.
We may wonder, then: How did we come to be satisfied using the term ‘magic’ for something that has become relatively normalized? Has the term simply lost all vestiges of its original meaning? In fact, there is a fairly simple explanation for this seeming incongruity between the normative implications of literary and historical magic: while magic in fantasy fiction may be familiar and acceptable within the narrative, it does always still signify as non-normative to us, the readers. And this is all part of the fun. Reading fantasy commonly comes with a voyeuristic, quasi-anthropological appeal of observing a society or entire world that seems strange, weird, almost unimaginable even, to us. It is the common enterprise of fantasy adventures to ask us to consider: what if there was a land where dragons and wizards were abundant and the royalty were beneficent and physically attractive?
Chiang’s concern, to bring us full circle, seems to be that this voyeuristic experience of magic in imagined other societies may reflect a classist understanding of our own reality, that it is appealing to a part of us that is comforted or flattered by the idea of a naturally special class of person. While this may indeed be a generic feature of fantasy magic, we can also find magics that are expressive of more than just some version of a natural hierarchy, which brings us back (finally) to The Locked Tomb.
Necromancy, the Body, and Boundaries
He said, “This is the part where I hurt you. Are you ready?” (Nona the Ninth, pg. 406)
As discussed briefly above, necromancy is a version of magic that can feel difficult to read as a positive or even a neutral force. Dead bodies, the basic clay of necromancy’s art, gross us out, and we cannot bring ourselves to treat them with the sense of whimsy or aspiration that is part and parcel of other fantasy magic. Kimberly Stratton identifies this reaction as a feeling of abjection, à la Julia Kristeva, high queen of abjection theory. Necromancy’s disturbance of the corpse, Stratton says, triggers our sense of our own fragility in light of our inevitable demise and transgresses the normal ritual boundaries of burial with which we usually carefully manage our upset feelings about the corpse (“Magic, Abjection, and Gender in Roman Literature,” pg. 158).
We might say that where general fantasy wizardry contributes to a sense of certainty about individual identity—wherein, as Chiang says, one tends to simply and definitively be a wizard or mage or what have you, with the power to order the physical world and obtain unambiguous knowledge about the spiritual one—necromancy does the opposite and unsettles identity by inviting us to think about the dissolution of the self, about death, about the lividity and decay of the flesh that in life we try to keep so orderly. And this is a dynamic that Tamsyn Muir evidently recognized and considered full of potential.
The Locked Tomb series, to the delight of us all, uses necromancy in order to explore themes of unstable identity. Playing out with a distinctly carnal sensibility, it is a story about problematic bodies, not least among them the Body, the inhabitant of the titular Locked Tomb, whose nature we are just starting to become privy to in the third book, and whose awakening would threaten apocalypse for John Gaius’ empire. She is a monster in the old-fashioned sense of defying easy categorization.
Other bodies in the books struggle with health, that hazily defined metric of corporal stability, in ways that invite the necromancer’s interest or even undergird their power. Dulcinea Septimus, to give a memorable example, slowly dies from blood cancer in a process that feeds her pool of necromantic power, dubbed ‘thanergy’ in universe, but that power is insufficient—is anathema, even, to making Dulcinea herself well (“If they could figure out some way to stop you when you’re mostly cancer and just a little bit woman, they would! But they can’t.”).
Most especially, though, Muir’s necromancy pokes at the spongy boundary between self and other until more than just errant fluids start to seep through. Characters consume each other, become each other, reject each other so aggressively that their sense of reality jostles loose. This dynamic is primarily embodied (hey-oh!) by protagonists Gideon and Harrowhark. The Gideon of the first book undergoes an unconventional, backwards character arc. She starts off already confident and capable, yearning for distinguishment both in the honorary sense of receiving commendation in the course of military service and in the sense of becoming individual and free of her indenture to the odious Ninth House. Her every attempt to self-actualize may be blocked, but she is trying. And yet, after Gideon is unwillingly pressed into service as Harrow’s cavalier, the pair progress from mutual avoidance to begrudging partnership (with an undercurrent of romantic tension, obviously), and on to the uncomfortable codependency that appears to be the ideal for necromancer-cavalier relationships in this culture. The journey culminates when Gideon willingly sacrifices her soul so that Harrow can achieve the pinnacle of necromancy, Lyctorhood.
The topper to this queer hero’s journey is that Muir seems to want to deny us any decisive outlook on all this boundary transgression. Those in the story that cling to the certainty of conflict are not necessarily better off than those that embrace the mess of entanglement.
It’s difficult to feel unconflicted even about John, the Necrolord Highest and creator of all the universe’s monstrosities. His cavalcade of errors are only rarely acts of divine wrath and much more often appear to be just the least-bad mistake he sees available to him at the time. He is more of a bumbler than either a mastermind or a madman.
Then he said— “Do you remember what you said to me once I had done it? When we stood here together?”
She looked at him and she said, “Yes.”
He said— “You said, ‘I picked you to change, and this is how you repay me?’”
She said— “What else did I say?”
He said: “You said, ‘What have you done to me? I am a hideousness.’”
She said— “What else did I say?”
He said, “Where did you put the people? Where did they go?”
She said, “I still love you.”
He said, “You said that too.”
(Nona the Ninth, pg. 410)
I suppose what I have been trying to say, what compels me about this series is how its magic is in the mess—the mess of ambiguity, of slippage between life and death, love and hate, Gideon and Harrow. Muir’s books would be extremely readable just for being a lot of fun, which they are, but they are also compelling examples of the still-potent capacity of magic to be a signifier of disturbance rather than determinism. That I suppose is my own answer to our original question of “Are the necromancers the bad guys?” Not good, not bad, but another secret third thing: a mess!
And—returning to Chiang just one more time—I want to end with the invitation that we could take a more generous attitude toward literary magic in general. As I have said, I think that Chiang is correctly identifying a potentially problematic implication of the idea of innate magic in fiction, but he is generalizing, and if we investigate specific examples, we will often find that there is more at work. Just to return to our previous example, Le Guin’s Earthsea series and her wizard Ged, we find that she is using magic not to define but rather to explore relationships between people and their own identities, people and other people, people and nature, etc. Her books, Muir’s books, and probably very many others—please feel free to mention examples in the comments, if any come to mind—use magic that way in order to bring us closer to the things we find weird or uncanny.
In the manner of anthropology, these stories challenge us to think about what it means to be human, in and of ourselves and in relation to others—but in the manner that belongs to fantasy and science fiction (and even, really, all books) they can also make us wonder what it’s like to be not quite human, if we can truly imagine that…to be alien, animal, android, or monster. These exercises are of course fun, but they also at times help us prove to ourselves how much more understanding our minds—and, yes, also our silly little hearts—can hold.
Kristen holds a master’s degree in Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies, but she also holds strong opinions on subjects in which she is not formally accredited. She reads. She is always trying to read more, MORE!