- Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1).
- Mark Lawrence.
- 432 pages.
- Fantasy / Epic Fantasy / Grimdark / Coming of Age.
- My Rating: 5 stars out of 5.
I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.
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.
Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…
I received a free copy of this book courtesy of the author in exchange for an honest review.
When I finished reading Red Sister, I updated Goodreads and wrote ‘wow, just pure freaking awesome’ but I’m guessing that sentence alone won’t cut it for a review, and that you’ll want more, taskmasters that you are!
“But be warned, young Nona: a book is as dangerous as any journey you might take. The person who closes the back cover may not be the same one that opened the front one. Treat books with respect.”
For committing a terrible crime against an heir to one of the wealthy and powerful families of Abeth in the defence of her friend, a small girl who to everyone else was beneath notice, someone deemed less than nothing, who should have been allowed to die at the hands of the rich with no recompense. And for saving her, young Nona, 9 years old, who’s father is dead and who’s mother abandoned her, giving her away is awaiting her turn on the gallows, she will hang for the atrocity but for the timely intervention of Abbess Glass, who gives Nona an unexpected choice, join the Church of the Ancestor and take the arduous training to become a Sister or face the consequences of her actions and hang. But why has the Abbess offered Nona this choice? Is it because Nona special? Is she fated to be something more than nothing? And will Nona’s actions have consequences? Will there be any resounding ramifications that echo throughout the duration of Red Sister?
Well my dear readers, to find out why the Abbess offered Nona the choice, if Nona’s actions do have any consequences, if those consequences cause ramifications and if she is fated to be something more than nothing, simply put, read the book! But to answer is Nona special? Then hell yes, damn right she is! For Nona is no ordinary little girl, she carries within her the blood of the Hunska, the bloodline from one of the four founding tribes of Abeth, rare in the current generations which grants her special traits and powers, yes, Nona has the power and you could almost blast out Stan Bush’s Touch from Transformers the Movie (1986) and its lyrics “you got the touch, you got the power.“
You know me by now and know that I only skirt vaguely over the story being told, I’m a firm believer that a book is a journey that you need to take for yourselves, and I guarantee you that Red Sister is a journey you should all take. Containing everything that makes a book great, magic, action, betrayal, unexpected twists and revelations, humour, emotion and endearing characters with awesome abilities.
Nona herself shows hints of Aria Stark, Mia Corvere and Wolverine in her actions and personality, with the stubborn tenacity, resourcefulness and gumption of those first two characters and the loyalty, fierceness and temper of the later. It’s like the three of them met, had an illicit sordid tryst of rampant debauchery and thus Nona was spawned, but she is also simultaneously so much more. From the first few pages you know that you are in for something special and that Nona herself is far more than just another young lead. As a protagonist Nona is flawed and complex, an engrossing and multi-layered main character to centre the character driven Red Sister around.
She’d been covered in blood when she’d left the village, and though the blood had long since been washed away, the stains would never be gone.
The Convent of Sweet Mercy, the Sisters harsh training, the lessons that happen there and the ranging that takes place harken back to and give vibes of the university in the Kingkiller chronicles, The Red Church in Nevernight, the Sixth Order in Blood Song and also Hogwarts but Lawrence makes the setting and its occupants his own.
While Red Sister is Nona’s story, let’s not diminish and forget about the other characters who all play key and important roles throughout, you don’t just care about Nona and forget about the rest. No, you also find yourself caring about a variety of the Sisters and other novices as you become invested in them and the relationships they develop, bonded and forged against the backdrop of the Convent through trials, tribulations, lessons and situations in their fight for survival.
“I took it because I didn’t trust my friend.” That was the truth, and like many truths it was hard and it hurt.
Lawrence does something that many would think nigh on impossible, he makes Nun’s cool! The Sisters of Sweet Mercy aren’t your drab, wimple wearing, pious, no fun bores proclaiming a life of monotonous prayer, chastity and who follow the mantra ‘anything good is evil and obviously the work of the devil’. No, these Nun’s while devout in their worship of the Ancestor are completely badass warrior Sisters.
At the start the four different tribes (Hunska, Quantal, Marjal and Gerant), how pure they are and their corresponding magical abilities can be slightly confusing, but that miniscule niggle is also the beauty of it, as we the reader learn alongside Nona at the same time, learning more about the world, the different races and the magic system which is complex without ever being overly complicated. This works really well as a plot device, pulling you in as you learn what Nona learns and as such, you really get a sense of her developing and growing.
The world world building in Red Sister is quite subtle with the majority of the book taking place within the confines of the Convent of Sweet Mercy. With the sun slowly dying the vast majority of Abeth itself has frozen over, ice on either side shrouding and encompassing most of the world with only a corridor around the centre still habitable. Your given enough to tantalise and titillate – (sniggers, I wrote tit, better not laugh the PC brigade might take offence) and you never feel overwhelmed with useless information, everything pertaining to the world is relevant to the story and you are given greater scope and depth of Abeth through various flashbacks.
I don’t feel that there’s much I can say about the writing as for me it was nigh on perfect, the pacing, the chapter lengths, the book length, the action and emotion were all bang on when reading and the pages just flew by.
Jorg Ancrath and his brothers in The Broken Empire and Jalan and Snorri in The Red Queen’s War are two trilogies that along with their respective characters hold a place in my heart as two of the finest grimdark fantasy trilogies there is. Now Red Sister, with its cast of captivating characters, story, setting, magic and cliffhanger ending that leaves you wanting more should broaden the appeal of Lawrence from just grimdark fantasy fans to a wider audience of readers.
She would find that distance in time, and there would be sorrow enough to make the dead weep, and she feared it.
By the years end, I fully expect Red Sister to be included in the lion’s share of top ten fantasy books of the year lists and fully deserving of that accolade it most certainly will be. With Red Sister, Lawrence not only gives us his best book yet but also his most accessible.
You will find Nona’s story to be one of the best coming of age tales that you will ever read.
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