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.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Book of the Ancestor
Publisher: Ace (April 4, 2016)
Length: 432 pages
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.