Author: Mark Lawrence
Series: The Ancestor
Publication Date: April 2017
“I WANT MORE!!!”
Those were the words that came out of my mouth the moment I finished Red Sister. I stayed up late to finish it and felt cheated I didn’t have book two in hand and another day to devote to reading.
I was late coming to this read and was aware of all the hype surrounding it the past couple of years yet I was still surprised by it; just how much was unexpected. I know there isn’t a lot I can say about this book that ten other reviewers haven’t already said but I’m gonna give it a go.
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy, young girls are raised to be killers. In some few children the old bloods show, gifting rare talents that can be honed to deadly or mystic effect. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls.
A bloodstained child of nine falsely accused of murder, guilty of worse, Nona is stolen from the shadow of the noose. It takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist, but under Abbess Glass’s care there is much more to learn than the arts of death. Among her class Nona finds a new family—and new enemies.
Despite the security and isolation of the convent, Nona’s secret and violent past finds her out, drawing with it the tangled politics of a crumbling empire. Her arrival sparks old feuds to life, igniting vicious struggles within the church and even drawing the eye of the emperor himself.
Beneath a dying sun, Nona Grey must master her inner demons, then loose them on those who stand in her way.
Writing And Pacing
From opening line to closing page Red Sister grabs you and doesn’t let go. Dark, mysterious, and gripping, this First Book of The Ancestor is imbued with tense action weighted in vengeance, bonds of friendship forged and broken, and layers of secrets slowly peeled back with revelations that will shock and thrill you.
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”
Damn! That is now easily one of my favorite opening lines to a book. Right away I was like, “a nun!? how bad-ass is this nun!? And she’s part of a convent? There’s more of them!?” I was hooked immediately. Not after a chapter, not after the first page, but after the first two lines. I also loved that this opening scene sticks with you throughout the book. The identity of this mysterious nun and what is playing out is slowly revealed as the novel progresses, a scene that is given context and dimension the deeper the reader delves into the story. With each new revelation and each time Lawrence returns to the scene we are teased with a new unexpected morsel to chew on until the final page where all is revealed…and we discover there is so much we still don’t know.
Then there’s everything in-between. Lawrence doesn’t let up here either. Red Sister is one of those books where you never know what might be coming around the corner. Every scene has the potential to surprise you. I mean sure every good book does this, but what I’m getting at is you enter a chapter never knowing if it will be a calm scene meant to get you from point A to B while providing a little background to the story, whether you’re about to get a mini or large revelation about the plot and/or characters, whether there will be a stunning betrayal, or whether it will be filled with action and lots of stabby stabby, kill kill. As a reader you go into it knowing any of these things (or more than one) might happen on the next page. It adds to the excitement and means you don’t want to put the book down. It kept me turning pages when I should have gone to sleep.
Setting and World Building
There were so many aspects of this book that I enjoyed. One of the first was the setting and world building. To begin with it is a magic school fantasy. I know some readers hate these kind of books, and after Harry Potter they had had enough. But I rather enjoy them. Something about slowly building up knowledge and the way it allows for reveals within the story always draws me in. The surprise for me was I had no idea Red Sister was this kind of book. I had tried not to read many reviews on it because I wanted a fresh read. But with Harry Potter being what it is for the past generation or more it’s hard for a book utilizing this trope to stay out of the boy wizard’s shadow. The multiple references to and questioning about whether the main character is “the one” added to the similarities. Suffice it to say while the similarities are there, Red Sister takes this fantasy mechanism and moves it down another path. This is one bad ass school of nuns and novices. I mean if you thought Defense Against The Dark Arts was a cool class wait till you step foot in The Poisoner’s classroom where she tried to poison a student every day!
I was also fascinated by the world itself. A world covered mostly in ice with a thin equatorial band of livable space 50 miles wide. At first I was like, “how the hell does this work?” Then you learn the “moon” is really a giant lens in space placed there by the people’s ancestors, a lens fighting a losing battle to keep the ice at bay. This makes for an interesting geography within which to set a novel and there is literally an object hanging over the characters providing ongoing tension to events as they progress.
And the fact that the people of this world came to it on ships – spaceships apparently. The mystery of the people’s past and its role within the story yet one more piece of narrative tension woven throughout the story. I’m curious to see how much of a blend of fantasy and sci-fi we get with future books.
The magic system is another element I appreciated. Tied to tribal ancestry the four categories of abilities, size and strength, speed, lesser magics, and greater magics provide contrasting balances to those with these abilities as well as thrilling powers to wield.
I really liked the characters in Red Sister. From the nuns with their naming conventions to the novices and their attempts to form bonds of friendship while navigating political, social, and economic differences within a school that theoretically treats them as equals and tries to form a sisterhood. But it’s one character in particular that stands out…
“I’m Nona Grey, war is in my veins, and the screams of my enemies are music to me.”
Can I tell you how much I loved Nona Grey? I’ll tell you. I LOVED NONA GREY. I’ll admit there were times when I asked myself how a girl as young as she could have the wisdom and restraint she maintains when most kids her age would act very differently. Though she doesn’t always bite her tongue and speaks out of turn, she holds back at times when you’d expect her to lash out and understands more about things you’d think she’d know next to nothing about. At first I thought maybe she was too mature for who she should be, but soon I realized it’s a part of what makes her a mystery throughout the book, one that is slowly unraveled all the way to the final line.
They mystery about Nona and her past drives so much of the story. Is she the chosen one? What really happened to her before Mistress Glass found her and brought her to the convent. As the revelations come you discover just how awesome and scary she really is. Her martial abilities make her stand out in this regard as a force to be reckoned with, yet she has limitations. But man she is scary in combat especially when you realize she’s holding back most of the time.
Then there are the themes I’ll discuss below which give a depth to Nona that made me love her even more.
Lawrence works a number of themes in Red Sister, three of the most prominent being that of friendship, secrecy, and truth. All three of these get wrapped up in the development and revelation of Nona Grey as a character. Right away you discover friendship is something Nona holds very dear to her heart. It’s something she accepts sparingly and something she will hold fast to no matter the cost. Indeed it’s the cost of her friendships and her unwillingness to give up on them which become one of the most formative aspects of her character right up to the very end.
Secrecy is another major theme in the book especially as it relates to Nona. For her it centers around who she really is and what happened to her before coming to the convent. The answer to this mystery is one the reader knows lies at the core of who Nona is, her fears, and what drives her. Little by little we learn more…or we think we do. Because we can never be sure if we’re getting the truth. Because the truth can be ugly. The truth might let people past carefully constructed defenses. The truth might cause rejection and pain.
Truth (and lies) is the theme most striking to me in Red Sister because you never know which is there. As one character puts it, “The truth is a weapon and lies are a necessary shield.” And its the way truth and lies are used to reach an end that leaves you never knowing for sure what is going on or what to believe. It’s a lesson Nona has to navigate throughout the book. As Abbess Glass puts it, “Words are steps along a path: the important thing is to get where you’re going.” And where you’re going is almost never clear.
All of these themes are wound up in the threads of Nona’s character. They make her more complex and more compelling than many other recent fantasy protagonists. While you might at first see her as a one dimensional warrior in training its these themes coupled with her abilities that make her both endearing and frightening. It’s why I love Nona Grey.
Red Sister is already one of my favorite reads of the year and Nona Grey one of my favorite new characters. I feel like I haven’t done it justice in this review and there’s a lot more I could say, but if I write more it’ll go on forever. I had to force myself to put the book down at night so I could get some rest before work the next day. That’s a testament to how much I enjoyed it. I regret I didn’t start it sooner but on the positive side with book three coming out soon I can read them all back to back. I can’t wait to see what this series holds in store.
5 of 5 Stars