Book reviews, Fantasy, Lgbt Characters

Book Review | Red Sister

red sister review

by Mark Lawrence — I loved this book. There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t enjoy about it. The characters were a delight, from the lovable to the despicable, they were all unique and their voices unmistakable. The world was fascinating, and so gripping that I swear I could hear the Corridor wind whistling in my ears, rustling my hair. I didn’t want to leave, and I put off finishing this book for a long time — for me that’s the highest form of praise. The books I speed by are entertaining, and fun, but the ones I take my time with are truly special.

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…”

Nona is a fantastic protagonist, you just want to peel all the layers that make up her personality and get to the heart of her. She’s as outwardly cold as the frozen world of Abeth, beaten down by the harsh weather and an even harsher life, but that outward layer is like a warm cloak that protects her from the elements – and her rage is hot and incandescent, a glorious thing to watch – that hides the lonely 11 year-old girl who is so desperate for companionship, for friendship, that she won’t think twice about laying down her life for a friend. She might be a nun in training, learning under the blessing of the Ancestor, but friendship is Nona’s religion, and loyalty her prayer. I felt her struggles keenly, I wanted her to succeed at all costs, even as she was hot-headed and impulsive, risking her life but always mindful of the dangers to her friends’.

I loved Nona, she is the perfect protagonist, in my opinion. But the title of most fascinating character definitely goes to Abbess Glass who is everything J.K. Rowling wishes Albus Dumbledore was – I’m at once compelled to trust her, trust that her student’s well-being is a priority to her, but I’m also suspicious of her motivations. She is a master manipulator, and she uses everything and everyone to her advantage, to protect the convent and its students, sure, but you’re always left wondering how far is she willing to go, and is there even a limit if the end result is the greater good? Her voice is at once maternal and ruthless, it’s such a hard line to walk but Mark Lawrence does it beautifully.

This is grimdark fantasy, and while the students are 10-12 years-old they don’t sound like it. They live in an extremely unforgiving planet, with only the warmth of the “focus moon” to melt a thin corridor of liveable land around Abeth’s equator. The harsh realities of life don’t leave much room for carefree childhoods, but some of the natural innocence of children still shines through in some moments — few and far between, but that only makes them more poignant. That being said, the Convent of Sweet Mercy is still a comforting space, in the way all magical schools should be, even with danger lurking in every corner. The classes and the magic system were a highlight for me, even as many of the powers Nona, and a few others display, are still unpredictable. Walking the Path especially was very engrossing, and very easy to visualise, which speaks well of Mark Lawrence’s wonderful writing.

The only real complain I have about this book is that while Mark Lawrence is amazing at writing women, really from the despicable to the sweet they are all fascinating, he isn’t nearly as good at writing men. The few men that show up in Red Sister are rather one dimensional, and while one antagonist is appropriately menacing, that’s all there is to him. The other male antagonist, and Nona’s nemesis…I don’t think I remember a word he said. I sincerely hope that if there’s going to be any romance in future books (besides the side romance between two adult nuns at the Convent) it remains between the female cast, because the men in this world aren’t at all memorable. And again it speaks volumes about how great this book is, that it didn’t detract in the least from my enjoyment.

I still haven’t managed to talk about how beautiful the prose in this book is. Red Sister has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in grimdark fantasy. It’s lyrical without being purple. Some turns of phrase were so stunning that they stayed with me long after I’d read them. There really isn’t enough I can say to express how delightful this was to read. If the grimdark label doesn’t give you pause (and trigger warnings for violence/abuse against children) do yourself a favour and pick up this book.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher:  Ace

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