Friday 31 March 2017

Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1), Mark Lawrence

"That's my secret and my shame. I'm Nona Grey, war is in my veins, and the screams of my enemies are music to me."
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

* * * * *
5 / 5

Absolutely incredible. Red Sister is the amazing, heartwrenching, slow-paced, bloody story of ten year old (then twelve, then older) Nona Grey, first sold to a child-seller, then to a a gang of ring-fighters, then inducted into the Sweet Mercy convent of assassin-nuns to save her from the hangman's noose. It started with a bang and ended with my heart in pieces and my eyes yearning for more. Seriously, it starts with:

"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."
And Red Sister only got better from there on out. Exponentially better.

Nona Grey is our wonderful protagonist. She's inquisitive, bold, and as afraid as any ten year old has the right to be. I don't much like books with younger protagonists, but Lawrence wrote Nona so beautifully that have no complaints about her character - most of the time I forgot how old she was. She and her companions are children but they are not childish. I certainly never found her annoying. We meet her at the hangman's noose, having killed a prized and noble ring-fighter who threatened her friend. She is whisked away from death by Abbess Glass of the Sweet Mercy Convent as Nona dully reflects on how she came to be here, trafficked in the cart of a child-seller, having been given up and rejected by her mother and her village. Nona is a strong-blooded Hunska, her speed making her a valuable recruit for a killer nun, and so she enters training.

"Keep that fire. Use it. We're wild things us men, and when we remember it we're at our most dangerous"

Nona's tough as nails, pisses off half the nuns and is beloved by the others. She makes friends rarely but when she does she'll defend them unto her dying breath. She's also powerful but not overpowered, a very fine line to walk that Lawrence has managed to tread exceedingly well. There's a prophecy about a Chosen One, but it isn't Nona. She's fiery, damaged, haunted by her past, and confused as she grows into her new powers. At the convent Nona first befriends money-driven, power-seeking Clera, whose father has been jailed. Then there's golden-haired, beautiful, Chosen One Arabella, whose relationship with Nona is developed lovingly from antagonistic to friendship:

Ara's crimes appeared to be confined to being beautiful, being born rich, and being the Chosen One. Everything else, Nona realised, was something given to her by Clera, or something assumed.

Lawerence's choice here is not only a heartwarming moral message but much more interesting than the "mean-girl Chosen One" trope, and I grew to love Ara fiercely. Nona's entrance into the Convent is not without it's troubles: The Tacsis' want their revenge for their son, the Emperor's sister wants her hands on the Chosen One and thus the power of the prophecy, and killer ice-tribe child Zole comes loaded with secrets and antagonism. Lawrence crafts a plot heavy with deceit, politics, betrayals, friendship, and gory, bloody scenes of violence. There's also a plethora of fascinating and highly developed female characters (and a couple of relationships between them hinted at) against the backdrop of an interesting world.

"We may fight here in this hall and think that because are battles are unconstrained by rules that we truly understand what it is to make war. Do not be deceived. Fights end with defeat. And death is the only defeat a warrior understands."

I did think Red Sister might end up being unnecessarily gory. I read another of Lawrence's books a number of years ago (long enough to dull my memory of it properly), the Prince of Thorns, and I vaguely recalled it being rather bloody. He's also renowned for some scene involving a dog, I think. Whilst Nona's world is harsh and cold and the convent tough, it is never anything out of line. Yes, there's gore, and it is rather unpleasant to think of a twelve year old killing people, and the convent can be unpleasant in it's punishments, but there is nothing you would not expect from the synopsis of the book. Off the top of my head, only three scenes struck me as horrifying - one involving animal cruelty, one involving a candle, and another where Nona is whipped under the command of royalty. 

The world, though not actually much explored in the book beyond the convent and the nearby city of Verity, is intriguing. The planet is named Abeth and it is almost entirely covered in uninhabitable ice, with the exception of a fifty mile inhabitable strip running around the equator: the Corridor. Lawrence gives the impression that the planet is rather large, as the Corridor is made up of hundreds of different nations. We have a bit of exposure to the ice tribes through Zole and Nona's memories of her father; tribes range the ice, hunting, scavenging and catching fish, and live in the tunnels beneath the ice, abandoned by people long past. Vast, cold, ice winds blow off landscape into the Corridor such that it seems like the world is in perpetual winter. It is a shame that we don't get to see much more of the universe, but this is more than made up for by the wonder that is the magical system.

Among the stars the quantal built their lives around the Path, generation upon generation, until it lived in their veins.

The people that currently inhabit Abeth can be traced back to four tribes: Gerant, with great size, Hunska, fast and nimble, Marjal, able to tap into lesser magics, and Quantal, able to walk the Path. Some people have a touch of tribe blood, others present more strongly: half or full bloods. The Convent has little interest in Marjals who can create fire, warp shadows, and bend the earth. These are the domain of the Academy, though a couple of the characters have a touch of Marjal. Nona is a full Hunska and this gives her a fascinating ability: she can slow down time on command, giving her the ability to consider her options more fully. This isn't exactly a rare ability at Sweet Mercy, which makes it extra interesting to see fights played out between two Hunska, or to have Lawrence consider Hunska against Gerant. How far can speed go towards winning a fight?

But Quantal is the rarest and most curious of them all. Lawrence devotes a fair amount of time to exploring the Path, that which runs between life and death, the holiest of journeys. Step and walk upon the path and you are granted destructive powers of the divine in a very literal way. Two characters, Hessa and Ara, can walk the path but this manifests in differing and intriguing ways. The Path is accessed by mastering serenity and patience, by changing your perspective, but it comes at a high cost.

Here's a moment. All the world and more has rushed eternity's length to reach this beat of your heart, screaming down the years. And if you let it, the universe, without drawing breath, will press itself through this fractured second and race to the next, on into a new eternity.

The writing - I always start my reviews with a favourite quote at the top. Lawrence's writing is so beautiful that I had trouble restricting myself to only using a handful of quotes to pepper throughout this review, let alone chose a favourite one. I use the highlighter function liberally on my Kindle, but for Red Sister when I started marking every other page, I knew I had to chill out. Lawrence writes sparsely - there's no massive chunks of description. But what he does write is evocative, beautiful, and immersive. There's a seamless blending of present moments and past recollections, of third-person perspective but also allowing a glimpse of Nona's inner thoughts and motives. He's also mastered the art of sounding like you are imparting wise, insightful comments, and then ruining them with a hilarious remark:

"You will learn about pain, fear, rage, and control. You will learn how to balance the first three to achieve the fourth. And you will cary those lessons into Grey Class where I will put weapons in your hands and teach you what it is to be a Red Sister. In Grey Class I will teach you how to make the fuckers bleed"

This coming from a serious, wise, deadly nun, it made me laugh aloud. On that note, there is a reasonable amount of strong language used, but I never thought it was excessive or used purely for shock value. 

One warning I have is that some may find the pacing a touch too slow. I thought it was perfectly done, but I have a weird and undying love for "training" scenes where we can watch our character slowly develop and evolve into the person they become at the end of the book. The first half of the book traces Nona's journey to the convent and through her entrance to the Red Class, the youngest of those at the Convent. I never thought this was dull - there's intrigue, politics, prophecies, relationships and characters to explore, as well as a bunch of flashbacks. What there isn't is a lot of blood, which some may find disappointing. The second half is where the action kicks it up a notch as Nona is twelve and a member of the Grey Class. There's a whole chunk more ring-fights, blades, more complex and interesting magic, and, yes, blood. Just something to be aware of. 

My only real criticism of Red Sister is that at the start most of the characters seem to blur into one. There's a few standouts - Abbess Glass, Arabella, Hessa, and Clera - but then there's a mishmash of nuns - Sisters Wheel, Tallow, Rule, Chrysanthemum, Flint, Kettle, Pan, Rock - and students - Croy, Jula, Ketti, Leeni, Ruli, Suleri - who all start to blur into one. As it progressed, I definitely managed to keep a grasp on all of the different characters, but the nuns all having similar names threw me off a bit at the start. Other than that, I have no complaints other than the fact that I have to wait for the next one to come out!

I've written a pretty long review (by my standards), but that is nothing less than Red Sister deserves. It's clever and compelling, the premise itself is original, the writing outstanding, and the characters equal parts lovable and terrifying. Do yourself a favour and read it!

My thanks to Netgalley, the publisher and the author for an ARC of this book.


  1. Ahh, now I want to read this!! Great review!

    1. Thank you! I hope you do try it and enjoy it :)