Author: Mark Lawrence
Series: Second Book Of The Ancestor
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
I love this series! That’s probably an understatement but it’s easily become one of my new favorite series in fantasy fiction. There’s just something about it whether it’s the story, the compelling baddass nun characters, or Mark Lawrence’s writing. I stayed up late to finish Grey Sister and I’m still not sure I’ve digested it all but I’m giving it a go.
Beware, as this is the second book in a series there are bound to be minor inevitable spoilers in this review if you haven’t read book one. If you haven’t read my review of Red Sister you can find it here. For this review I’m going generally follow the same format I did for Red Sister with some technical stuff first then overall comments at the end.
“Behind its walls, the Convent of Sweet Mercy has trained young girls to hone their skills for centuries. In Mystic Class, Novice Nona Grey has begun to learn the secrets of the universe. But so often even the deepest truths just make our choices harder. Before she leaves the convent, Nona must choose which order to dedicate herself to—and whether her path will lead to a life of prayer and service or one of the blade and the fist.
All that stands between her and these choices are the pride of a thwarted assassin, the designs of a would-be empress wielding the Inquisition like a knife, and the vengeance of the empire’s richest lord.
As the world narrows around her, and her enemies attack her through the system she is sworn to, Nona must find her own path despite the competing pulls of friendship, revenge, ambition, and loyalty.
And in all this only one thing is certain: there will be blood.”
Grey Sister picks up a couple years after Red Sister left off. Nona and Zole, have now entered Mystic class at Sweet Mercy ahead of most of their peers. Life is different at Sweet Mercy without the shipheart (stolen by Yisht in book one), there are new nuns teaching classes, and new novices in Mystic Class who don’t appreciate upstart commoners like Nona. It also soon becomes evident that old adversaries haven’t forgotten the past. There’s also a new addition to Nona’s persona…something she picked up during her fight with Raymel Tacsis.
Writing And Pacing
Lawrence set his hooks into you with Red Sister and never removed them. He let his lines go slack so you could wander off to other fare in the interim months, but it didn’t take much to yank back on that line and begin to reel you in. He did it by picking up right where Red Sister left off, in the middle of that fight outside Sweet Mercy where Lano Tacsis is coming after Nona and the convent. This future event that ran through Red Sister continues in Grey Sister only now we know a bit more about the opposing parties. This plot device sucks the reader in again and sets up the story in a familiar way. Though the opening paragraph wasn’t as awesome as in book one, it was the closing line of the prologue that set the stage for the rest of the book as we are reintroduced to Nona Grey as Sister Cage:
“I am my own cage…And I have opened the door.”
Right there you know someone’s about to die.
This scene is doing a lot. It ties the series together, foreshadows what’s to come, and keeps the reader on edge wondering how it will turn out. It’s as if we know where the end of everything is going, the question (and the story) is how we get there and what all happens in-between.
Lawrence’s prose is much the same as in Red Sister which I would expect yet in some ways it seemed tighter, the writing a little better. This isn’t something I have specific examples to show you, just a feeling I got as I read.
One thing Lawrence did a little differently in Grey Sister is give us different points of view. Not only do we see things from Nona’s perspective, we get them from Abbess Glass and Sister Kettle, as well as one chapter from Sister Apple. This does two things: it gives more depth to some of the characters, and it adjusts the pacing of the book. As I said in my review of Red Sister every scene has the potential to surprise you and you don’t know what’s in store. One effective way Lawrence shifts gears in this installment, at times slowing the pace and at times speeding it along, is to switch points of view. This is done primarily by switching between Nona and Abbess Glass (most of the scenes from Kettle’s POV are shared in chapters with Nona). This back and forth while at times slowing things down between chapters still follows the general thread of the book’s pacing and picks up the pace midway through as it rushes headlong to the end.
Setting And World Building
Much of the book takes place withing the confines of the Sweet Mercy convent. Lawrence continues the school motif in Grey Sister but in a different fashion. The school and to some extent the people have changed since the events of Red Sister most notably due to the theft of the shipheart and the results of the battle with Raymel Tacsis. While tere isn’t as much classroom material in this installment it is used to paint a somewhat bleak picture with mood and atmosphere at the school that carries over to the rest of the novel.
We do get to see a little more of the wider world of the empire in this book however. I hesitate to say too much about this because I don’t want to give parts of the story away, but similar to the ranging the novices went on in Red Sister there is an excursion of sorts for multiple characters which does a lot for character revelation and development as well as giving us more insight into the make-up of the empire. Most notably we come to find out a good deal more about the mysterious Noi-Guin and their Tetragode, as well as the Inquisition of the church. This is to say the word building in this installment isn’t very wide, we still stay within the confines of the school and the nation, but it does go a little deeper into the political and religious make-up of the empire.
Have I told you before how much I love Nona Grey? Yeah? I did? Well that hasn’t changed. Nona is still my favorite character of the books and a new favorite in fantasy. She has aged and matured a little since Red Sister (as would be expected) but in many ways she’s the same. In Grey Sister Nona is still trying to figure out who she is, but it’s more focused now as if she’s accepted she may never know everything and that what’s important is figuring out her place within the community at Sweet Mercy and among her friends, though her past still haunts her. Nona is still not one to bite her tongue or check her actions when provoked which can get her into trouble but she seems more aware of it now.
What I really appreciated in Grey Sister however is how we get a little more insight into the characters of Abbess Glass, Sister Kettle, and even Zole. With Abbess Glass we get a bit more backstory which helps to explain her actions not just in this book but in Red Sister as well. The added depth to her character helps not just with history but with overall motivation which has guided events up to this point in the story without others realizing it.
The sections from Sister Kettle’s point of view serve multiple functions beyond just fleshing out a character. They provide a means of explaining shadow work and what it means to be a Sister of Discretion which becomes more and more important as the story progresses. Kettle also comes to serve as an unexpected mentor to Nona, and forming a bond with her that was lost when Hessa died.
Then there’s Zole. In Red Sister we didn’t really get to know her beyond a surface level. She was quiet, cold, and deadly, and we were never sure if she could be trusted. She’s much the same in Grey Sister but we do get to see below the surface a bit. Her motivations are exposed a little and she has started to form a bond with Nona at least. Lawrence’s subtle use of Zole in the story helps to magnify the theme of friendship/betrayal that continues to run through this series. Zole is also just plain scary. If there’s anyone you don’t want to face in a dark alley or open battlefield it’s her. She delivers another of my favorite lines in the book:
“‘The Noi-Guin are even spoken of on the ice.’ Zole rolled her head, clicking the bones in her neck. ‘They come after people in the night and murder them in their sleep. We are going into their home, where they believe that they are safe. If they find us we will see what they are made of. And show them what we are made of.’
Kettle grinned. ‘And what’s that?’
Zole did not smile in return. ‘Sweet Mercy.'”
Grey Sister was a fantastic follow-up to Red Sister. Lawrence delivers more back-story and the character development deepens while advancing the overall narrative. We get to see more of the motivations from the main characters as well as from the villains. The world building expands and the tension regarding the future of the world grows even more taut.
I really enjoyed getting to know Glass, Kettle, and Zole a little more. And Nona…well I still love everything about her. And there was that added surprise of that little something she picked up after her fight with Raymel. I still won’t go into that, but it has a major impact on her character throughout the book; something she has to deal with and attempt to master before it masters her.
The themes of friendship and betrayal continue to run through the series and I imagine will do so in the next book. Only now they go deeper as we begin to see the impacts they have on Nona after the events of Red Sister. They are used to both assist and manipulate the characters, aiding them at times with new friendships and alliances, bending them to another’s will by pulling on the tenuous threads by which they connect and bind the characters together, and offering glimpses of hope, forgiveness, and redemption…or at least the possibility of them. Friendships deepen, and old betrayals come back to rear their head. The question throughout much of the book is to what extant will the characters – especially Nona – allow these forces to manipulate and to what extant will the characters master them, especially when the people who embody loss and betrayal thrust themselves into the picture.
Another major theme that runs through the book is that of loss. It’s found most evidently in Nona. In Red Sister she lost her friend Hessa as well as her shadow. The impact of that carries into this book and weighs on her all the way to the end. She also lost another friend in Clera through betrayal. Friendship goes to the heart of who Nona is and these losses are painful and become a driving force for her character development. There’s also the loss of the shipheart at Sweet Mercy. It soon becomes evident how important that object is/was for the sisters and the wider world and its loss is felt most distinctly. Its loss is tied to that of Hessa, so for Nona it becomes a powerful motivator. As the story progresses there’s even more loss and here Lawrence gets you in the feels in unexpected ways.
The fight scenes are even better than those in Red Sister. Nona and Zole are forces to be reckoned with. They’ve had more training and are older, stronger, more agile, and they’ve discovered how to tap into forces they could barely grasp previously. They are something to be feared, even by those who are on their side. But don’t let me forget other characters. Ara also shines in this one even if only briefly. If you’re looking for stabby stabby you’ll find it here.
One area of complaint (if that is what it is) I have with Grey Sister is one I see a lot in series that deal with kids growing older in a school setting like this one. And that’s how the antagonist in that setting – there’s always at least one character whose duty it is to harass the heroine – never seems to learn the lessons the rest of us did from the preceding story. In this case I’m talking about the new character Joeli. As head of Mystic Class, a snobby noble, and self-appointed nemesis of Nona at Sweet Mercy (we find out why later), she doesn’t seem to care about how scary deadly Nona really is. There’s no sense that she should be afraid of Nona given what she did to Raymel and his men. It isn’t like everyone isn’t aware of what happened or how powerful she (and as an extension Zole) really are. But Joeli doesn’t seem to care. I just find this trope a little unrealistic (yeah I know it’s fantasy and therefore all of it is unrealistic) even though I see how it’s a useful way of adding tension and conflict to the story. I just have a hard time buying into it even when the circumstances are explained later.
All that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Grey Sister. It had a lot of work to do to follow-up on such a great first book in the series and Lawrence delivered. It’s paced well, action packed, and will keep you turning pages. I can’t wait for Holy Sister to come out in a few weeks. Until then I’ll be impatiently waiting.