Review: RED SISTER by Mark Lawrence

Publisher: Ace Books
Page Count: 475
Release Date: April 4th, 2017
Rating: 4/5 Stars

Note: This book was received as the prize of a giveaway from the publisher.  It has not affected my review in anyway. 

Nona Grey is facing the end of a hangman’s noose at the ripe old age of nine years old when she is conscripted as a novice into the convent of Sweet Mercy.  These nuns, however, aren’t the kind that simply sit and pray to the Ancestor (although there’s plenty of that too).  These nuns train to work in service to the church with blades, be it open combat or more subtle assassinations. In particular, they look for children who show signs of being descended from one of the four main ancestral tribes, children who display special abilities like enhanced speed, or the ability to connect to a force energy known as the Path.  That Nona shows one skill set is remarkable enough.  But when it becomes clear she has abilities from at least two tribes, life at Sweet Mercy becomes much more complicated.  See, there’s a prophecy about the Chosen One who will open a sealed Ark, and about the one who will be her Shield.  Nona could be foretold, or she could be just a coincidence – but there are those in the kingdom who will go to war over simply the chance that she is the Chosen One, putting Nona at the center of a growing web of politics.

RED SISTER is an engrossing grimdark novel, one full of a cruel world and cruel humans, but sustaining the reader through all of that is the power of friendship, and I mean that without sarcasm.  Nona is a young girl of black and white ethos, who is possibly a touch on the spectrum, definitely full of a rage she is always trying to channel.  She does not cast out the word “friend” lightly; to her, naming a person a friend creates a sacred bond, inviolate, that means she will defend a person to the death. Part of Nona’s growth is realizing that friendship doesn’t have to be an official declaration, and that friendship itself is complicated.  It is these growing relationships that cement the novel, as the girls of Nona’s class grow tighter and take more risks for each other.

In an interesting tact for a fantasy novel, RED SISTER manages to be large and small scale in plot at the same time.  Nona is a child ranging from about nine to twelve during the events of the book, and as we follow along from her third person perspective, we have a very limited view of what is happening in the world at large.  Nona knows that her mere existence is causing complications in the nations politics, but she only has a child’s understanding what those complications are.  What she knows is from hearsay and conjecture from her fellow novices, or occasionally from the Sisters.  There are hints of larger matters to come, particularly in the flash forward sections that appear briefly in certain interludes.

While this narrow peek into the world at large makes sense for the character, it did cause a few frustrations for me, simply by virtue of what wasn’t being explained.  The sisterhood itself, for example, and its relationship to the emperor and the nation, was a little fuzzy to me.  Who, ultimately, is deciding where the Sisters serve?  Is it the Church, or do they act at the behest of the emperor?  And  what exactly do the Sisters who are not teaching at the abbey do?  Are they wandering knights, are they assigned tasks?  These were missing puzzle pieces that kept scratching the back of my brain. The story ends mere seconds after the climactic last battle, with so many unanswered questions that I find myself itching for book two just to see if they’re addressed.

Even with these missing elements, RED SISTER still manages to have enough going on that I haven’t even begun to touch on some of the world building at large!  The occasional appearance of more sci-fi elements, such as the knowledge that the ancestors came from another planet, is an interesting wrinkle that I’m definitely curious to see play out more in the trilogy.  And those brief flashbacks I mentioned earlier are excellent teases, as they are the kind that take on a whole new meaning as certain elements are revealed in the main story.   There’s so much to dive into with RED SISTER, and if you are a particular fan of the “magical school” trope, you will probably tear through this book. More importantly, if you like your books to have a strong grounded character to pull you through, prepare yourself for the force that is Nona Grey.

10 thoughts on “Review: RED SISTER by Mark Lawrence

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  1. I need to read this. To be honest I promised myself that before starting this series I would finish The Red Queen’s War trilogy by the same author and I have the last book to read yet, but I see both of them in my near future because I simply need to start this series!

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