Book Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Book of the Ancestor

Publisher: Ace (April 4, 2016)

Length: 432 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Readers coming from Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War will find that his new novel Red Sister is a wholly different beast—and not just because we are now venturing into an entirely new universe, completely unrelated to those trilogies. There are other differences as well, like the fact the story is told in the third person, follows a protagonist who is a young girl, and—at least to my eye—does not feel as dark as Lawrence’s previous works.

The book introduces us to the icebound world of Abeth, populated by people who descend from four main “tribes”: the Gerant, distinguished by their great size and strength; the Hunska, dark-eyed and dark haired, capable of great speed; the Marjal, who possess the ability to tap into the lesser magics; and finally the Quantal, who are gifted with the ability to work greater magics and enter a state known as “walking the Path”. Children who manifest even a single talent characterized by any of these four tribes are highly sought after by various institutions from churches to academies, and those who display two or three can even be worth more than their weight in gold. Across the land, children are given away or sold if they show potential, which is how protagonist Nona Grey ends up traveling in a cage along with a dozen other boys and girls her age, being carted off to a prospective buyer.

But things don’t exactly work out for Nona. At the age of eight, she finds herself facing the hangman’s noose for committing savage attack on a member of a noble family. However, just before her execution can take place, she is rescued by the abbess of Sweet Mercy, who whisks Nona away to her convent where young girls are trained to be fighters. There, Nona flourishes as a novice and learns the ways of the sisters, becoming especially adept in the arts of combat because of her Hunska blood. She also makes a lot of friends, though she still guards her secrets closely, unable to fully come clean to anyone about why she was sold away from her village—and why her mother allowed that to happen. Eventually though, Nona learns the hard way that the past always has a way of catching up with her, and unfortunately, her old enemies have not forgotten what she did to them either.

At first glance, Red Sister may seem to lack the complexity of Lawrence’s previous novels. I might even have felt an inkling of “Young Adult vibes” coming off at some points, and not just because of the age of our protagonist. After all, many of the genre’s tropes also hold true in the first half of the book, not the least of them being the beloved “magic school” motif, following Nona as goes through the motions of attending her various classes, making new friends and enemies along the way. Dare I say, at times these themes are almost Harry Potter-like in their style and treatment, despite the school here being a convent, Nona and her friends are all training to be killers, and the teachers are nuns who have a disturbing tendency to poison their students for fun or punish misdemeanors with a good old head-shaving. There’s even the trope of the “hated professor”, inevitably the sister Nona manages to piss off on the very first day, who then winds up holding a grudge against our protagonist for the next two years. To my bewilderment, the familiar concepts didn’t stop there either. Throw in the idea of prophecies and the foretold coming of a literal “Chosen One”, and I was starting to wonder how this could be written by the same author who never ceased to surprise me with his inventiveness and imagination from his previous trilogies.

Which just goes to show, I really should have reserved my judgment for until I reached the second half of this book. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself in the first half, mind you, namely because I actually have fondness for training school stories no matter how common they have become. I also adored Nona’s camaraderie with her fellow novices, despite or perhaps because of the long time those friendships took to build. This book places a huge emphasis on the bonds of trust, and I appreciated how much attention was spent on relationship-building in the first two hundred pages or so. Still—and I think most readers who have read the book will agree—the real fun doesn’t begin in Red Sister until Grey Class, after Nona has spent two years at the Sweet Mercy convent, or roughly around the halfway mark. This is where all the game changers are. The big threat is introduced. Secrets are revealed. Nona and her friends take action.

Furthermore, even while the plot employs a number of coming-of-age tropes, the overall story is compelling and the characters are irresistible, making it very easy to be swept up in the action and excitement. Mark Lawrence is a great writer, which is no secret to me of course, his skills on full display here as he experiments with new spins on old ideas, perhaps trying to push the boundaries of his own comfort zone. And yet, in spite of how different Red Sister feels compared to his previous books, fortunately a number of strengths remain the same. For one thing, you can be sure this novel will include a meticulously constructed world full of various intrigues, as well as Lawrence’s in-depth characterizations. Compared to the first person narrative used to his previous trilogies, the third person mode in Red Sister may feel a little less nuanced, but the genuine emotions and personalities involved are still right there.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if this book ends up being polarizing among the author’s fans, simply because he has indeed shaken things up quite a bit. That said, on the flip of the coin this could also mean that readers who couldn’t get into either The Broken Empire or The Red Queen’s War trilogies might find themselves taking to this novel instead. So if you found those books to be too grim (or Jorg from The Prince of Thorns too unpleasant), it may be worth a shot to revisit Mark Lawrence again, since Red Sister is a whole new ballgame. As someone who has enjoyed all his previous novels, I must say reading this new series opener was a little jarring at first, but by the end I was enjoying myself immensely and now I am looking forward to the next installment.

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34 Comments on “Book Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

  1. Yes, I’ve heard this book is very different from his other two series. And I’m sure it will appeal to quite another set of readers. I’m looking forward to reading it myself.

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  2. Good review. I’d heard this book was very different from his previous two series and I’m sure it will appeal to a wider audience. I’m looking forward to reading it myself

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  3. I hated Jorge, enough so that I’ve simply blown off ALL of Lawrences books. This is about the 3rd or 4th review that states how different this series is. We’ll see how the overall series turns out, but everything I’ve read so far leads me to think I might be able to enjoy this…

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    • Oh yeah, you weren’t the only one – a lot of readers despised Jorg, and for good reason. He’s a right little asshole, that one. The good news is that, yes, if you were turned off by his Prince of Thorns characters, this one will probably work a lot better. I really liked Nona, she’s not exactly “sweet” in the traditional sense, but I still wanted to give her a hug 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • The thing is, I just don’t know if I want to give Lawrence my time now. Someone who can write Jorg isn’t someone I want to deal with.

        I’ll be weighing all this in the next couple of years as the rest of the Red Sister books come out.

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        • “Someone who can write Jorg isn’t someone I want to deal with”
          You shouldn’t let this stop you. I’ve been following his blog on and off for a while now and he is a very nice person.

          On another note, Jalan and Snorri are hands down my favorite duo in recent years, so would deal again 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I have the first books in both of his series sitting on my shelf, but I’m afraid for the dark aspects. Maybe I need to start here! I do love good characterization and I like that he took the time to get to know everyone. Nice review as always!

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    • Yeah, his Broken Empire is very dark. Prince of Fools in his Red Queen’s War trilogy is a little lighter (the main character in that one is hilarious!) but overall it’s still pretty grim. Red Sister seems to be the lightest of the bunch, though it is not without its scenes of brutality or violence, but it has a much stronger coming-of-age vibe 🙂

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  5. I still think Prince of Fools was the book that set a different in tone. This one felt a lot more like Prince of Thorns to me. I seem to be alone in this thinking though.

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    • To me, Prince of Thorns was dark in a way that was almost repellent, but Red Sister, while it had its moments of darkness too, was on the whole was much lighter fare. I agree with Prince of Fools setting a different tone though, it was dark and yet oh so funny…I would put it somewhere in the middle.

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    • Kinda! Nevernight had a much stronger “YA” feel than this one though. For one, there is no romance at all in Red Sister, which sets it apart from a lot of these coming of age “training school” type books 🙂

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  6. I’m so excited to read Red Sister, it’ll be my first read with Lawrence and I’m glad to know that it’s a bit different than what his normal fare is. My copy arrives today, so I’m crossing my fingers 🙂

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  7. Great review! While I did not actually dislike “Prince of Fools”, I’ve not been eager to move forward with the series, either: grimness and violence don’t scare me, but there was something so darkly twisted in Jorg that I felt the need to distance myself from him and his story, intriguing as it was. With this book I might finally find my way though Mark Lawrence’s writing, since I’ve been curious to know more due to the enthusiastic reviews I keep reading. So… Thank you for this very encouraging – and intriguing! – post 🙂

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    • I totally get where you’re coming from. Like I said in a previous comment, there was something about the darkness in Jorg’s trilogy that’s almost repellent. The character himself was a disgusting little turd! And yet, I still loved the book 🙂 In contrast, Red Sister was likely meant to reach an entirely different subset of readers. On the whole I think it succeeded 🙂

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  8. Great review. Absolutely spot on in every way. I loved this, but I do love this style of setting and I had to set aside my ‘Lawrence’ expectations and just go for it. I love the writing style – he has such a lovely turn of phrase. Like Nathan says above, and I think he makes an excellent point, looking back Prince of Fools was also very different from the first series. I think I remember saying in my original review that it felt ‘old school’. So, I guess this isn’t the first change in style that we’ve seen from the author really, this one does almost border, with the age of Nona, into YA, but then it stays out of that realm because of the elements of violence. I definitely think this book will be more polarising though. What I’m really looking forward to is seeing where Lawrence goes next with this. I feel like he always surprises me somehow.
    Lynn 😀

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    • Agreed! Red Sister is something different entirely, and I don’t think anyone can really base their expectations for it on any past experience with Lawrence’s other trilogies. You are right too in that he is always full of surprises 😀

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  9. Interesting, a switch from first to third! That alone might shake things up for readers, in addition to the other differences you mentioned. Which series would you recommend to a Lawrence newb? It seems like everyone has read Prince of Thorns, so I was thinking I’d probably better start there; but this one sounds kind of fun. It reminds me of Robin LaFevers’ ya “assassin nuns”!

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    • I guess it would totally depend on your tastes! Prince of Thorns (Broken Empire Trilogy) is very dark – and also, the main character is VERY unlikeable, but that is by design. Even so, I know a lot of dark fantasy/grimdark fans who are turned off by that trilogy simply because they found the protagonist too hard to stomach, and I can understand why. Prince of Fools (Red Queen’s War trilogy) on the other hand much lighter, though it is still quite grim. But start there though if you like a good dose of humor in your dark fantasy, because there are quite a few funny parts sprinkled in between 🙂 I would say that’s a decent starting point. Red Sister would probably be the “safest” though, because of the more traditional and familiar themes 🙂

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      • Oh thank you, I’m so glad you explained the difference between the first two! I’ll definitely start with Prince of Fools, if that has more humor to balance the “grim.” That’s a huge help!!

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