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Literature / The Locked Tomb

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Harrow: Nav, show them what the Ninth House does.
Gideon: We do bones, motherfucker.

The Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir is a Science Fantasy Genre-Busting series which takes place in the far-future Empire of the Nine Houses, a galaxy-spanning empire of necromancy. The Nine Houses revolve around their Emperor and God, who brought his Houses back from death in the Resurrection 10,000 years ago. The Nine Houses of God's domain are varied and rich in history, filled with dark necromancies and powerful lineages, and constantly jockey for political favor.

The series centers on two young women from the Ninth House, the smallest of the Emperor's houses, located in a dark shaft cracked into the core of a dead planet, which safeguards and worships the eponymous Locked Tomb. The Tomb contains the greatest enemy of the Empire, a foe so dangerous that God himself could defeat it once, but not twice.

Gideon Nav is a foundling who was taken in by the Ninth, and has tried to escape the decrepit and abusive House since she was four years old. Holding her back is the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, an exceptionally powerful necromancer and Gideon's lifelong tormentor. When a summons comes from their Emperor and God, they are bound up in the greater conflicts of the Empire and are forced to confront the tangled and broken relationship between the two of them.

Books in The Locked Tomb series

  1. Gideon the Ninth (September 10th, 2019)
  2. Harrow the Ninth (August 4th, 2020)
  3. Nona the Ninth (September 13th, 2022)
  4. Alecto The Ninth (2023)

Additional works in The Locked Tomb series

  • The Unwanted Guest (short story) (October 24th, 2023)

All individual character tropes should be placed on the Characters page.

The Locked Tomb series as a whole provides examples of:

  • Absent Aliens: The universe is full of life, but humanity is the only known form of life complex enough to be self aware.
  • Aerith and Bob: Normal and common names like Abigail and Camilla exist alongside some unusual names from mythology, like Palamedes or Protesilaus, and a few invented ones, like the majority of the Ninth House, who have names like Harrowhark and Aiglamene.
  • The Ageless: The body of a Lyctor is preserved at the exact point in time they achieved Lyctorhood, meaning they don't age and can't die from old age, but can from sufficient trauma. Certain experiments that were also created at Canaan House also have this apply, such as Teacher and the preserved skeletons.
  • Animate Dead: Well, this is an Empire of necromancers. There are even different specialties of preserving and animating corpses, manipulating bones, and anchoring souls.
  • The Antichrist: Whatever is trapped inside the Locked Tomb is implied to be the equivalent: the Emperor's greatest enemy whom he defeated once, but cannot defeat again, and thus must never wake.
  • Anti-Magical Faction: The goal of Blood of Eden is to undo and wipe out necromancy completely.
  • Arc Number: Naturally, nine. From the Nine Houses to the length of character's names, to the number of Lyctors, it crops up in many different places.
    • Nineteen also has a way of cropping up, especially in Harrow the Ninth where it crops up often in the form of "almost twenty years ago", in reference to an event that involved multiple Lyctors, widespread assassinations and terrorism, the disappearance of the rebels' mysterious leader, and Gideon Nav's conception.
    • In a more subtle way, three recurs often. The pivotal characters of Gideon the Ninth are the heirs of the Third, Sixth, and Ninth houses, God has three remaining Lyctors in Harrow the Ninth while three Resurrection Beasts remain, and so on.
    • To a lesser extent, the other Houses are thematically associated with their numbers, such as the Third House having three heirs, or the Fourth House being four years younger than their counterparts from the Ninth.
  • Aura Vision: Necromancers in general are able to detect thalergy and thanergy as an additional sense. Lyctors have this amplified to an extreme degree, but are themselves magical black holes essentially invisible to others. Gideon can visually observe thanergy in tandem with Harrow sharing senses with her, a fact which completely baffles Harrow and is left unexplained.
  • Badass Boast: Harrowhark is prone to this.
    Harrow: I have bested my father. I have bested my father and my grandmother—every single necromancer ever taught by my House—every necromancer who has ever touched a skeleton.
  • Badass Creed: Again Harrowhark: "Death First to Vultures and Scavengers", from context she is quoting Marshal Crux, so presumably this is a house creed of some sort.
  • Bad with the Bone: While most necromancers are limited to renaminating skeletons, some particularly talented ones (namely Harrow and Cytherea) are capable of using bone itself as a medium to be shaped and manipulated as easily as clay, and can even make it regenerate.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: The reason that Gideon is so upset by Magnus the Fifth's death. He was practically a stranger, but he is the first person in her life to treat her kindly without any sort of ulterior motive.
  • Bodyguard Legacy: Ortus Nigenad has, nominally, succeeded his late father as Cavalier Primary to the ruling Necromancers of the Ninth House. This proves to be a problem as unlike his father, he's a poet with no skill or taste for combat. In Gideon the Ninth, he runs away when called to active duty and is hastily replaced with the protagonist.
  • Brains and Brawn: Pretty much all necromancer and cavalier pairs, though cavaliers are often more down-to-earth and practical than unintelligent; it's basically part of the job description to be part bodyguard and part minder.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Necromancers are often drawing from their own thanergy and/or thalergy to power the bulk of their magic.
  • Cast Full of Gay: Downplayed and not openly discussed, but present. Both of the primary protagonists are lesbians, and within the Empire, there is no stigma attached to same-gender relationships. Even formal House marriages are arranged between men and women with little distinction. It also applies to gender, with peripheral references to genetic material primarily as sources of XX and XY rather than sex, and an incidental character in The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex who is non-binary.
    • Later books turn this overboard in regards to souls residing in bodies that they did not originate in. Many of the Lyctors have a body of one sex inhabited by a soul of each. Pyrrha is a female soul inhabiting a male body but referred to with female pronouns. Camilla and Palamedes both inhabit a female body, but the narration changes their pronouns based on who's driving it.
  • Central Theme: Not being able to die and not being able to let go.
    • Gideon and Harrow, as the primary protagonists, both embody it in their own ways, with Gideon born solely as a Human Sacrifice, with her own mother planning to murder her, surviving the Ninth House's actual murder of her and her own Heroic Suicide, and persisting inside of Harrow while Harrow has always been suicidal, but desperate to live, knowing the Human Sacrifice that ensured her conception made her too valuable to die.
    • The true antagonist of Gideon the Ninth is motivated by her desire to commit Suicide by Cop and finally bring an end to her long suffering.
    • One of the antagonists of Harrow the Ninth is Commander Wake, Gideon's mother, having persisted as a revenant for almost twenty years out of sheer hatred for the Empire and attempts to fulfill her mission.
    • The Empire itself was formed from the remnants of humanity left to die on Earth, with a single man going from a survivor to the immortal God-Emperor of Necromancy.
    • The eponymous Tomb itself locks away the First of the Resurrected, a person of incomparable power who literally cannot be killed.
  • The Champion: This is what a cavalier primary is meant to be for their necromancer, every ounce of their duty revolving around this one person. Only a few actually hold up to the pressure of the role at Canaan House.
  • Child Soldiers: Jeannemary and Isaac of the Fourth House are only fourteen at most, but intend to enlist next year, and would have already been enlisted if Isaac hadn't gotten the mumps during the recruitment period. It's said noble scions of Fourth House are often on the front lines well before their sixteenth birthdays; for the Second, who are even more tightly connected to the Cohort, Judith joined at the age of six. Even Gideon herself, who's wanted to be a soldier since she was eight and was training with a two-handed sword she could barely lift, finds it a little disquieting.
  • Colonized Solar System: The Nine Houses are a far future version of the Solar System, and with exception to the only marginally habitable Sixth and Ninth, the remainder of the Houses are the former planets, renamed and reshaped.
    • The Ninth is located on Pluto - it's the planet furthest from Dominicus while still receiving its thanergy, it's freezing cold, and it is ruled more than any other House by its association with death and the corpse of the Locked Tomb.
    • The First is the remnant of Earth, left largely abandoned as a monument to all those lost in the Resurrection.
    • The Seventh is Venus, said to be a lush and idyllic world, and the martial Second's seat is Mars.
    • The Sixth is station set against the pole of Mercury, which is only marginally habitable.
    • The remaining Houses are not detailed extensively, but the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth are on the gas giant planets, and appear to have been covered with shells to give them a surface for humans to live on.
  • Color-Coded Eyes: Eye colors are said to represent the soul, and are a major focus for all major characters, and often reflect their personality or background in some way. It even extends to entire houses; the most common eye color on the Ninth is black. Achieving Lyctorhood, no matter what form, causes the eye color to change as a result; imperfect Lyctors take the color of their cavalier, perfect Lyctors also have their cavalier take their necromancer's eye color, and a fused Lyctoral soul has one eye color as the pupil and the other as the iris.
  • Color Motif: Each of the House colors reflects their distinctive personalities in some fashion, though this is most blatant with the grey librarian Sixth, the white pious Eighth, and the black death-cultist Ninth.
  • Creator Provincialism: Tamsyn Muir is a New Zealander who likes to include its culture in her books, most prominently with the flashback chapters in Nona the Ninth which take place in New Zealand.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Very frequently, though just as often, these details are very well buried Foreshadowing.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Many, most notably Gideon, Harrow, and Camilla.
  • Death of a Child: Harrow notes the death of a baby always releases vast necromantic power. Her parents took advantage of this.
  • Dem Bones: Bone constructs are everywhere in an Empire of necromancers, but are the Ninth's specialty, and Harrow's in particular. Constructs are generally weak, given bone without muscle isn't very strong in its own right, and require "programming" of their actions, so they're mainly used as an untiring labor force, and when they are used in combat, they tend to be used in large numbers or as a surprise factor. While most constructs are humanoid, being nothing more than someone’s reanimated skeleton, talented adepts can regrow whole skeletons out of isolated fragments and shape bone like clay, allowing for constructs in far more unusual and monstrous forms.
  • Earth All Along: The Nine Houses are a very far future version of the Solar System, with the First House being Earth, but there are gaps in what is shown about the system (such as the First lacking a moon) to obscure this fact, though it's made explicit later in the series
  • Earth That Was: The First is Earth, all 10 billion killed by runaway nuclear fission reactions and the rising seas of global warming. At least, that's the simple answer; although the Earth was on life support with constant climate disasters, she didn't die until John, in a fit of power madness and fury, triggered global thermonuclear war in his attempt to stop the ultra-wealthy and their token refugees from abandoning the rest of them to die.
  • Elemental Motifs:
    • Necromancy is strongly connected to water, often explicitly saltwater, which obviously ties it in further to blood, sweat and tears. This association crops up all over the place, from Canaan House being surrounded by the sea, to Harrow's family traditions, and the River. In Harrow the Ninth, it's expanded upon, and cheekily extended to include soup. This ultimately is because the Earth's soul granted John necromancy because of how hard he worked to save her, and the Earth is water and salt.
      • The Lyctorhood process by contrast, is strongly associated with fire, as it entails preserving and burning a soul for eternity.
    • Several characters also have associations with particular elements, listed on their character pages, with the most notable being Gideon's association with iron and Harrow's association with ash.
  • Emergency Transformation: It is implied that several of the original Lyctors did not have much of a choice in the matter, and Cytherea admits that she became a Lyctor because she and her cavalier thought it would help her live. This also ends up happening to Harrow; with three of the last survivors of Canaan House cornered and all heavily wounded, Gideon kills herself to force Harrow to become a Lyctor so that at least she and Camilla can survive.
  • The Empire: The Nine Houses compose a galactic Necromantic empire, waging an eternal war of conquest on the systems outside the light of Domincus as well as the planet-destroying Resurrection Beasts that arise from the deaths of planets. It's also distinctly fascist, bound entirely to the edicts of God and his military, waging war on the non-necromantic humans in what Augustine describes as a campaign of symbolic revenge. The people of the Nine Houses do not consider the worlds they 'shepherd' to be extensions of home, and claiming such worlds involves 'flipping' them so that they slowly die and the people eventually have to be evacuated.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Downplayed. While some people do have preferences (neither Harrow nor Gideon ever expresses interest in men at all, for example), 10,000 years in the future, humanity seems to form relationships without any regard to gender.
  • Eye Colour Change: The Lyctorhood process has a side effect of granting a necromancer the eye color of the cavalier they consumed, which seems to range from total replacement to a subtle merging of eye color depending on the Lyctor. Perfect Lyctorhood causes a swapping of eye color that indicates which soul is currently active.
  • Fantastic Science: Necromancy is treated more like a science than anything else, requiring study of the proper theorems to pull off. Different specialties are treated less as innate magical differences, and more like academic specializations.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Wouldn't be a galaxy spanning Empire without it. Average people are limited to Steletic travel, while Lyctors and the Emperor can travel directly by dropping into The River. The latter is far more dangerous but isn't bound to specific obelisks, and is way faster, capable of crossing 40 billion light years — almost the radial distance of the entire universe — in a matter of minutes. Blood of Eden also has FTL capable of crossing the entire universe without relying on necromancy, having been an older form of sub-space travel their ancestors first used to abandon the dying Earth.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Prior to arriving at Canaan House, Harrow singles out the Sixth as one of the greatest threats in the Lyctoral trials, but after people start dying, the Sixth and Ninth end up working closely together, with all of them becoming more than just colleagues, but actual friends. It persists into Harrow the Ninth, though complicated by Camilla joining Blood of Eden and Palamedes' and Gideon's deaths.
  • Foreshadowing: The series features a lot of extensively foreshadowed events, so much so that they're listed separately here.
  • Friendly Skeleton: In the Empire in general, but especially in the Ninth House, animated skeletons are just a part of life, and take care of menial tasks like farming or cooking. It's not necessarily the case for other Houses, as the Fourth mention they're scared by them, while Gideon's so used to them that her narration barely comments on their presence. Of particular note are the skeletons of Canaan House, who turn out to be not just animated skeletons puppeted by the priests, but actual souls bound to skeletons who are sentient but unable to talk due to their physical limitations.
  • Genius Bruiser: Every Lyctor is this, combining the genius of one of the best necromancers who ever lived with the swordsmanship skills of their cavalier, who are generally among the best swordsmen who ever lived.
  • Genius Loci: Downplayed. While they're not actually characters, all planets have complex enough thalergy that they have souls (even those without life), and are the only things other than humans that do; their awareness is compared to something like a distant dream full of the memories of their creation and long existence. The angry ghosts of the dead planets of the Empire's Houses are also major threats in Harrow the Ninth.
  • Genre Shift: Each story so far has had a markedly different tone from the others in the series. Comments from Muir have indicated that the genre changes are a deliberate choice, and that they will be present in future works as well.
  • Glass Cannon: Palamedes explicitly calls necromancers this. It's why they need cavaliers and other melee soldiers protecting them to be effective.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: The greater-scope conflict of the series. The Empire is a fascist conquering force that literally kills the souls of the planets they invade in order to practice their necromantic powers. The terrorists that oppose them, Blood of Eden, are fragmented into independent cells that at their worst practice torture, publicly throw suspected necromancers in cages and set them on fire, and are in general brutally violent. Both sides freely use child soldiers.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Played straight and then zig-zagged. The soldiers of the Empire use swords, as do the various cavaliers. There's a gun in a ten thousand year old workshop, and Gideon notes that it's the first time she's ever actually seen one that wasn't just an illustration. However, in Harrow the Ninth, guns feature prominently, and are surprisingly effective. Content from outside the empire speculates that the Empire deliberately spreads propaganda that necromancers are immune to bullets, but also recognizes that a gunfight full of violent thanergy blooms only serves to make necromancers more powerful over a protracted fight.
  • Healing Factor: Lyctors are capable of this to an insane degree, provided they have enough Life Energy to draw on, either their own or someone else's. As a result, they're extremely difficult to kill, short of anything that destroys their heart, brain, or entire body completely.
  • Heroic RRoD: Exceptionally powerful acts of magic have a strong physical cost on necromancers, starting with blood sweat and burst capillaries, and can escalate all the way up to death.
  • Homage: Muir used to write Homestuck fanfiction, and there are several instances of deep references to the comic.
  • Hometown Nickname: It's very common in the Empire for people to refer to others solely by their House name, especially at Canaan House, which is the rare instance where all of the Houses are present in one location.
  • Human Resources: Pretty much all necromancy requires some form of this, whether it be bones, blood, or thalergy/thanergy.
  • Human Sacrifice:
    • The actual reason Harrow is so powerful. Before conceiving her, her parents sacrificed 200 infants and children of their own House in a ritual to ensure Harrow would be a necromancer, and an immensely talented one at that.
    • Gideon herself was intended to be one that was even worse, born solely as a Human Weapon to break the seal on the Tomb, but her mother died before she could kill Gideon.
  • Immortality Hurts: Lyctors can be killed permanently in battle, but due to their powerful Healing Factor it is difficult to do so. They feel every bit of pain from any horrible maiming they suffer that would kill normal humans. Lyctorhood also never removed the cancer from Cytherea's body, only trapped her in a permanent, agonizing advanced stage of the disease for the last 10,000 years.
  • Interfaith Smoothie: While never fully detailed, Empire religion draws from primarily from Catholicism (monotheistic, the Resurrection, Saints), with some Greco-Roman traditions (The River, hero worship) and Buddhist concepts as well. Given that John, said monotheistic God, still reflexively swears to an older divinity, it's directly Invoked.
  • Interrogating the Dead:
    • The Ninth necromancers also tried to do this with Gideon's dead mother after finding her corpse and an infant Gideon at the Ninth's doorstep. Her ghost was not very cooperative and only screeched "Gideon!" three times, which was how they decided to name the baby.
    • Silas Octakiseron did this to Sister Glaurica, explaining how he knows a lot more about the Ninth House than he should.
  • Life Energy: Thalergy (life energy) and thanergy (death energy) are both important when it comes to fueling necromancy. Harrow the Ninth explains some of the physics of this. Thalergy is self-explanatory: every living thing (including their component cells) is animated by thalergy, and things with sufficiently complicated thalergetic signatures have souls. When thalergy decays (like radioactivity), their cells die, which emits thanergy. When something dies, its soul (if any) enters the River, and the massive cellular death causes a corresponding thanergy “bloom”. However, thanergy also decays, and the bloom fades within a minute, leaving a stable pool of thanergy clinging to the remains. This thanergy slowly decays over centuries and millennia, eventually reducing bone to just lumps of calcium, useless to necromancers.
    • The Second House specializes in draining thanergy from their dying enemies and using it to bolster the life energy of their cavaliers; being drained of either your thanergy or thalergy is supposed to be an agonizing process.
  • Living Battery: Siphoning is a necromantic technique where a necromancer draws on the energy from a vessel, and is used to refer to several different methods of doing so; a necromancer can pull from a cavalier's thalergy directly or in the Eighth discipline of soul siphoning, shunt the soul elsewhere and drain the energy that enters their empty vessel. The end result basically serves to make a necromancer's magic more powerful. Although the end-goal of Lyctorhood was originally immortality, the way in which it is achieved also effectively creates this as well, as a necromancer consumes their cavalier's soul to burn perpetually.
  • Locked Room Mystery: In The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex, the reason the study is mysterious is that, while it has been shut for over four hundred years, there's a pair of skeletal hands inside that are only two hundred years old. The supposedly failed summoning of the good doctor's spirit actually worked, and he had something he wanted to finish so badly he jumped into one of the skeletal servitors, climbed into a maintenance tunnel, and broke the skeleton's hands off to fit them through the air conditioning grate so he could reach his desk.
  • Lovecraftian Superpower: Lyctors are capable of total control over their own body, and often manipulate it as a medium to form weapons or projectiles.
  • Magic Knight:
    • The Lyctors are this because becoming a Lyctor requires a necromancer to consume and integrate the soul of their cavalier, gaining the prowess of both.
    • Coronabeth appears to be this, unusually fit for a necromancer and eager to test her swordfighting skills against Gideon. But averted when she's revealed not to be a necromancer at all.
  • Martyrdom Culture: The Empire as a whole, with particularly revered heroes taken to the Emperor's Mithraeum to be hallowed for eternity. Usually, it's reserved for the heroes of their endless of wars of conquest, but notable academics and politicians sometimes receive honors from the Emperor as well. It proves an element where the Empire is distinctly fascist, as those within the Emperor's inner circle show very little respect for said martyrs, and view it as an aggravating means to preserve the Empire at best.
  • Master of All: Lyctors, in contrast to most necromancers, seem to be extremely skilled at all disciplines of necromancy, due to a combination of their limitless thanergy and thalergy as well as having thousands of years to practice.
  • Master of One Magic: Each of the Houses has a sub-discipline of necromancy that they specialize in, though it's more like an academic focus than an innate characteristic of their magic. Of particular note within Gideon the Ninth is that the Ninth specialize in bone constructs, the Sixth in Psychometry, and the Eighth in the extremely dangerous soul siphoning.
  • Medieval Stasis: Very little in the Empire of the nine houses has changed in the last ten-thousand years. There are regular flashbacks to things a few hundred or even thousand years old that operate on the same scale as contemporary equivalents. For example, the thousand-year-old ghost of Mathias Nonius is still a swordsman without compare, as neither weaponry nor technique has advanced since his death. It might even have regressed — he first appears in plate armor made of carbon fiber and polymer, which is described as something the Cohort stopped using years and years ago.
  • Merger of Souls: A major thread through the story, as Lyctorhood in all its forms requires it, and is a pale mirror of the merged soul that John and Alecto share. The Eightfold Path was originally developed to create immortality, and is an imperfect method that gives a skilled necromancer the framework to extract, consume, and successfully integrate a foreign soul to burn for perpetual energy. This is viewed by its own creators as imperfect, as they consumed and burned their beloved cavaliers to do so. A perfected or completed Lyctorhood, one which preserves the cavalier's mind as a secondary mind that exists secondarily to their necromancer, is possible to achieve but comes with the consequence of never being able to see your closest friend ever again, and none of the Lyctors seen with it achieved it as a conscious goal. Completing a Lyctoral bond to its literal end point is a complete merging of souls, which Palamedes believes is the truest form of Lyctor, and dubs a Grand Lysis to the petty Lysis of old.
  • Mind Hive: A form of "perfect" Lyctorhood that preserves the mind and soul of the cavalier alongside the necromancer is possible. However this process is much more difficult, and the only unambiguous example (Gideon the First and Pyrrha) was accidental, and Anastasia failed to complete the process successfully (according to John)
  • Modern Stasis: The civilization represented by Blood of Eden seems to have fallen into it: an unnamed city on a planet outside the Empire is seen in The Stinger of Harrow the Ninth and wouldn't be out of place in modern times.
  • Multiple Narrative Modes: As of yet, each story has featured a different primary protagonist with a different narrative style and tone, with shifts throughout the story at key moments or to show specific perspectives.
    • Gideon the Ninth is told from a close-in third-person narration, and is heavily flavored with Gideon's sarcasm, and switches to Harrow's perspective after Gideon's Heroic Suicide.
    • Harrow the Ninth is primarily Psychological Horror told in Second-Person Narration about Harrow that is later revealed to be first person narration by Gideon in her body, with interludes in third-person exploring the liminal space Harrow created in the River.
    • The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex is in first-person from Camilla's perspective. Like Camilla, it is no-nonsense and straight-forward, and mixes present and past tense narration as she recounts the story to her audience some time after Palamedes' death in Gideon the Ninth.
    • Nona the Ninth is reminiscent of the style Gideon is written in, but with the sarcasm swapped out for an unflagging optimism that is utterly at odds with the events going on around the narrator. This is interspersed with snippets from a post-apocalyptic earth just days after a nuclear war has killed everyone on the planet, narrated by John Gaius.
  • Necromancy: The Empire is built on this, and the royal scions of all eight Houses are powerful necromancers with different areas of specialization, loosely broken into three disciplines (Bone, Flesh, and Spirit). While thalergy (life energy) is ubiquitous in the universe, the thanergy that the Empire relies on is unnatural in origin, and the Empire sustains itself by propagating it onto planets they conquer.
  • Numerical Theme Naming: House names are almost exclusively themed on puns based on the number they belong to, though they range from the obvious (Dyas, Pent, Sextus) to the obscure (Ebdoma note , Nav note ).
  • Obliviously Superpowered: Implied. Gideon is Made of Iron in Gideon the Ninth, bouncing back from several events that should have killed her. In Harrow the Ninth, she learns that she's the God-Emperor's daughter, suggesting that she inherited his near-immortality.
  • Orphaned Etymology: A conscious aversion. Gideon's sword is referred to as a longsword or a two-hander, avoiding the German "Zweihander" entirely except for author commentary.
  • Our Liches Are Different: Lyctors are inspired by the concept but differ by not being undead and having their power stem from a secondary soul that they burn inside themselves endlessly, yet are likewise capable of extreme acts of necromancy with no limit.
  • Our Souls Are Different: Souls exist within anything able to generate a complex signature of thalergy, which is humans but also planets. When people or planets gradually die, they fade away into The River and the land beyond, but when they die suddenly, it produces ghosts and revenants. Spirits are the dead in the River temporarily brought back by slaking their hunger. While most necromancy only uses thanergy (death energy), a few actually consume souls entirely, such as the Lyctor process.
  • Our Wormholes Are Different: Although steletic travel actually operates by short travel through The River, it functions much like wormhole travel, only connecting two specific locations at a time. Mercymorn mentions as an aside that more standard wormholes are scientifically known to exist, but the Empire uses the stele instead.
  • Planetary Core Manipulation: As the foremost Necromancers in the galaxy, a single Lyctor can "flip" a planet from its surface by overwhelming its core with thanergy. This allows lesser necromancers to draw power from the dying planet, but causes the slow destruction of its biosphere.
  • Planet of Hats: The Nine Houses have developed stereotypes about their inhabitants in the 10,000 years since the Resurrection. The Ninth House is made up of creepy shadow cultists, the Eight House is self-righteous and Holier Than Thou, the Sixth is full of drab, shut-in archivists, the Fourth House turns out Jumped at the Call Cannon Fodder and so on. The fact that each House genuinely does provide a unique, specialized service for the empire doesn’t help.
  • Power at a Price: Harrow is the most potent necromancer that the Ninth House has produced in centuries. This is no accident; her parents killed off all 200 of the Ninth's children on the night she was conceived specifically to create a child like her. This has left the Ninth with an aging population and no one to replace them, with only two people on the planet under twenty years old.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child:
    • A necromancer becomes a Lyctor by sacrificing their cavalier and consuming the cavalier's soul. This grants immortality, a superhuman healing factor, and unlimited necromantic energy, among other things. Under normal circumstances, the cavalier's mind is destroyed by this, but there do seem to be pains of assimilation that linger for some time.
    • It's mentioned that human sacrifices can power necromantic spells, and babies and children in particular release an enormous amount of energy.
  • Power-Strain Blackout: There are a few times when Harrow passes out after overextending herself with her magic.
  • Psychic Nosebleed: "Blood sweat" is a very common side effect of necromancy, and Harrow frequently gets this along with nosebleeds, blood from the eyes, and even exploded blood vessels when really letting loose with her magic.
  • Rainbow Motif: The First's House colors are rainbow and mother of pearl, as a combination of all of the other House colors.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: There's a divide between the Houses on this for given names. Houses affiliated with the Empire's military, such as the Second and Fourth, have given names from the Bible, while most of the remaining Houses have names that derive from Greek and Roman mythology, though there are also a few exceptions such as Dulcinea and Colum. Averted for the Ninth, as they don't match either theme, with most of the names in the Ninth being Latin-sounding but original.
  • Rewatch Bonus: The series as a whole has a lot of dense worldbuilding and background references that often only make sense with the context of later reveals, some of which have even more secrets hidden behind even later reveals, adding elements that can only be appreciated when re-reading. For instance, the conversations Cytherea has with Gideon throughout Gideon the Ninth are revealed to have deeper meaning knowing she is a Lyctor impersonating Dulcinea, but have even more context with the reveals at the end of Harrow the Ninth where Gideon is revealed to be the Emperor's daughter.
  • Royal Inbreeding: It's obliquely mentioned that several houses practice "Resurrection purity" of cavalier and necromancer lines, and have over the past 10,000 years, though genetic abnormalities are still avoided. Subverted for the Sixth and Ninth, who are so small that they have never been able to afford the practice, and some Houses follow different traditions, such as the siphoning Eighth.
  • Sacrificed Basic Skill for Awesome Training: Since necromancy is a complex academic art, most necromancers dedicate themselves to necromancy and very little else. Most are weak and sickly as a result and many have barely functional social skills.
  • Schizo Tech: The setting features approximately 17th century swordfighting alongside early 20th century firearms and faster-than-light travel.
    • The single item that perhaps best illustrates this trope is Mattias Nonias' armor in Harrow the Ninth. It's made of high tech polymers and plex. It's for swordfighting.
  • Science Fantasy: Spaceships, LED lighting, and comic books coexist with necromancy powered by the fundamental energies of death and life, animating skeletons, and summoning ghosts.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can:
    • The body sealed inside the Locked Tomb is this, at least according to Empire religion. Supposedly, it is the Emperor's greatest foe, an enemy so great that God could defeat it once, but not twice. The Ninth House considers the Tomb opening to be synonymous with the apocalypse. Harrow opened the Tomb years ago, to see that the body is a breathtakingly beautiful young woman. The reason her parents committed suicide is because they found out when Gideon tattled.
    • In Harrow the Ninth, the Emperor says that he didn't kill Alecto so much as "turn her off," and implies that she wouldn't let him pull that trick again. Also, he sealed the Tomb with his own blood, which hasn't been spilled in ten thousand years, so it should have been impossible to open the Tomb. Even after Harrow confesses, he flat-out tells her it's not possible. As it turns out, it's because she had Gideon's blood under her fingernails, and as God's daughter, Gideon's blood was good enough.
    • In Nona the Ninth, the chapters count down to when the Tomb opens. Considering they're not even in the same solar system as the Tomb, it's more than a little confusing. Nona and her family travel through the River to the Ninth House, where Nona's soul, which is Alecto minus all her rage, returns to her body, which awakens. Alecto then walks outside and stabs God, with little effect.
  • Shown Their Work: The series is rich in scientific knowledge and terminology, especially medical terminology. Necromancers rattle off the precise names of bones without a blink, and even Book Dumb Gideon knows about as much as the average medical student.
  • Squishy Wizard: Necromancers. Immensely powerful, but pretty much universally out of shape and physically fragile. The Empire's entire military is effectively built around masses of infantry solely to protect their necromancers.
  • Subspace or Hyperspace: The Empire's Faster-Than-Light Travel operates by dropping into The River and being spit back out. Most people require specific anchor points (obelisks) traveled to by steles, which are fed with oxygenated blood, as only Lyctors and the Emperor can survive prolonged exposure to The River. Mercy and the Emperor even mention that it's the second form of FTL discovered; the first form destroyed time and distance and turned out to be impractical... probably.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic:
    • While never a major focus of the series, the rules of necromancy that are described are firmly Magic A Is Magic A - spells are defined by rules, animated by theorems, and refined by experiments. Necromancers fundamentally academics first, and magicians, soldiers, and fighters second.
    • Necromancy itself is a gift from the soul of the Earth, and has innate principles that John slowly uncovered prior to the death of the Earth and the Resurrection
    • It's also discussed by the Emperor, in the early days, before the academic rigor was discovered, everything was less clinical, and he's somewhat unsettled to realize how detached Harrow is in describing the massacre of children that led to her birth. Much of information contained in the Lyctoral studies at Canaan House debunk the rules of necromancy as the heirs understand them, and allow for far less contained uses of necromancy, though this seems to have been due to information being lost or suppressed over milennia.
    • Peripheral references mention that some of the broader uses of necromancy allow the Empire to emulate things expected of interstellar empires, ranging from vat wombs to stelitic travel.
  • Sword and Sorcerer: Cavaliers and Necromancers are paired specifically to cover each others weaknesses.
  • Technicolor Eyes: To go with the Color-Coded Eyes, naturally. There's violet, gold, and black eyes are common in the Ninth. Lyctors have even more pronounced colors, especially Mercymorn's sandy hazel mixed with red. And the Emperor has completely black eyes ringed in white that were originally Alecto's. They used to be bright gold until the pair traded when they achieved Perfect Lyctorhood.
  • Trilogy Creep: Originally dubbed "The Locked Tomb Trilogy," the announcement of Nona the Ninth (taking Alecto's place as the third book and pushing it to the fourth place) makes it "The Locked Tomb Series".
  • The Underworld: The River is a vast liminal thanergetic space that is omnipresent "below" normal reality, and is the natural place where the souls of the dead go when they die. It consists of the Riverbank, a strange transitional area between life and death, and progressively deeper layers of water that are full of the souls of the dead, feral and mad with hunger. The bed of the River is pockmarked with "stoma", building sized holes full of human teeth and tongues that lead to a featureless black space that the First and the Emperor know nothing about, and which they reflexively refer to as Hell.
    • The degree to which the River physically exists or is merely a symbolic representation of a more inscrutable afterlife is left openly vague. Physically entering it while alive is immediately deadly, and even the immortal Lyctors can only withstand it for a matter of minutes, all while experiencing hellish hallucinations.
    • It's also discussed in-universe that it might only be an Afterlife Antechamber: Beyond whatever lies beyond the stoma, a once-popular heresy proposes the existence of a “River beyond”, a true afterlife instead of just a sea of insane ghosts, and postulates that the current state of the River is the result of something gone very wrong, an idea implied to be correct based on Alecto's reaction to it at the end of Nona the Ninth.
  • Unequal Rites: While they all share an academic approach and Magic A Is Magic A rules, there's a fair bit of squabbling between the Houses about the validity of each of their necromantic specializations, especially when it comes to siphoning. Harrow, as a bone adept, takes particular offense to the idea that "meat" has anything interesting about it.
  • Weird Sun: Dominicus also died and was reborn in the Resurrection, and is now a thanergy star, kept from imploding into a black hole by the power of the Emperor. And necromancers can only be born while in the system it's at the heart of.
  • Your Magic's No Good Here: Thalergy (Life Energy) is a universal phenomenon, but thanergy (death energy) was first created in the Dominicus star system with the birth of Necromancy. Necromancers simply can't do most necromancy in space due to the lack of thanergy, without self-harming or suicidal acts of drawing on their own body, and are severely hampered by the lack of ambient thanergy on thalergy worlds. The primary invasion tactic the Empire relies on is an immense surge of ground forces to produce enough thanergy to allow their necromancers to truly join the battle, though it requires a full "flip" of a planet from thalergic to thanergic for them to be as comfortable and powerful as they are in the Empire. Lyctors are the only exception, thanks to their inexhaustible reserve of Soul Power.