9/10 – I received an advanced copy of Red Sister from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to announce my gratitude to Mark Lawrence, Ace and Berkley Publishing Group for this opportunity.
Throughout this narrative, we flaunt within the mind of and follow the actions of Nona. Our protagonist is a young girl who we are introduced to initially whilst she is awaiting execution via the gallows for killing a renowned pit-fighter. Luckily for Nona, it just so happens that Abbess Glass, who manages the Sweet Mercy Convent has taken such an interest in her hardships that she offers her the option of joining the nunnery as a Novice, thus escaping the impending death sentence. A large contingent of the interested parties are not particularly happy with this outcome. Perhaps the reason being that Nona did murder the son of one of the wealthiest and proudest men in the world. The repercussions of this singular act ripple throughout the tale.
Nona, a fiery but slightly damaged peasant with talents she doesn’t truly understand then finds herself in the establishment where the Sisters of Sweet Mercy frequent. It is here where they train future nuns within certain art forms and most importantly, where all revere the Ancestor. Did I mention that these novices are trained to become some of the deadliest killers in the land for their Holy purposes?
“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”
The nunnery is reminiscent of the magic schools such as those created within The Kingkiller Chronicles and A Wizard of Earthsea. Claustrophobic atmospheres, close friendships, harsh teachers, bizarre traditions, bullies and the ultimate shaping of the raw talents shown by Nona, and others; into what their potential will allow. Nona reminded me of Sonea from the Magician’s Trilogy. They are similar with their poor upbringing, attending establishments of special education against the wishes of many influential individuals and also, whispers that they are some kind of “chosen one”. This is a lot darker than Trudi Canavan’s trilogy. The vein here is more sinister, despondent and Nona’s past seems extremely more tortuous than Sonea’s did.
A large percent of Red Sister is set within the convent. The trials and tribulations here, in some aspects, are similar to youth experienced by all young girls such as making friends, dealing with bullies and disliking teachers amongst other dramas. What isn’t similar to our world is that the novices become trained in extreme fighting (using fists, knives and throwing stars), taught about poisons and other skills that readers would describe as magical. The convent also has what is known as the Blade Path, which is a timed assault course like activity which would put army endurance tests to shame. In addition to the antics at the convent, the nuns and novices travel elsewhere in this world should their studies find it befitting, such as training with other youths at The Academy. The escapades elsewhere mainly lead them to the capital city of Verity, however; I will not say much about the storyline when the sisters are “unleashed” from their habitual establishment. A highly intriguing aspect of this book was the ingeniously placed flashback sections regarding Nona’s youth prior to being found guilty of murder. Examples include juggling lessons and her being abandoned by her family. Each flashback adds an extra layer to Nona’s already intricate, complex and perhaps even notorious character.
In Lawrence’s envisaged world, the moon is falling, there are two miles high fields of ice encompassing the majority of the globe leaving The Corridor where the action takes place and also, one of the finest “magic-systems” I have ever seen depicted in fantasy.
The “magic-system” is labyrinthine in its complexity. I used quotation marks with that phrase as to describe it as being as simplistic as that statement is underwhelming for what has been created. For precision, complexity and potential – the magics are potentially on par with the Warrens used in Malazan and Allomancy in Mistborn. At the moment, as stated, I would say they are on par, however; we have no idea of the full possibilities. We were given glimmers throughout of the extra powers certain characters witnessed without understanding and which they could learn when older to manipulate to their will. It is exciting. There is a good mix of John Woo: Stranglehold like slowdown of time, thought control, mind sharing, walking “The Path” to obtain phenomenal destructive power, Witcher-like tracking senses amongst other talents. The skills they have acquired depend on which of the four legendary Abeth tribes these novices descended from.
The fabrication of the abnormal powers seems confusing at first but I believe this is intentional. Nona is of course, in an educational environment and as she learns about the magic, possibilities, poisons and histories of the world, then we as readers learn it also. Our gaps in knowledge are filled as the tale progresses, with the necessary information as Nona learns herself; which equals heightened affinity to our protagonist because we are going through the same learning issues and symptoms.
This book has scenes of macabre and harrowing happenings but it will then switch back to a pleasant scene in the Convent’s dormitory where Nona, as a 9-year-old is gossiping about the happenings in the nunnery and also chatting to her fellow novices about families and friends as young children would. These scenes brought me metaphorically back down to Earth where I had to put the book down for a second and re-analyse that these girls were that young going through what would make many grown men weak at the bladder. It is a great juxtaposition and unifies Nona’s relationship with important characters such as Ara, Hessa, Zole and Clera.
The finale of this story was utterly breathtaking. Nona is one of my favourite characters in fiction. Lawrence has created one of the most engaging fantasy worlds that my mind has allowed me to visit. At the finale, the second book is set up exceptionally well. It hit me yesterday that because I have an advanced copy of this, that I have to wait even longer for the second book. That is quite upsetting. When it is released officially I will buy this as it deserves a prime of place on my literal favourite bookshelf in my library. This tale was so extraordinary in my mind that I am questioning my previous ratings of other similar stories in this genre. So, note to authors; if I take a star or two off your rating then it is Mark Lawrence’s fault, not mine.