Title: Red Sister
Series: Book of the Ancestor #1
Author: Mark Lawrence
Published: April 4th, 2017 (Ace)
Synopsis: 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 Grey is about to hang after attempting to murder the heir of one of the wealthiest families in the Empire when she is rescued by Abbess Glass of the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Sweet Mercy isn’t your average convent though – the novices are basically trained as warriors and assassins who fight in the name of the Ancestor. Nona will need to do her best, for even behind its secure walls, she can’t escape her past, and she has made powerful enemies who continue to chase her.
“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.”
This has to be one of the best opening lines I’ve come across. The prologue serves to confuse the reader completely and doesn’t start making any kind of sense until about 200 pages later, but keeps you so curious that you need to keep reading. I first read this book when it came out over three years ago and was excited to continue the series, but somehow never found the time. Now that I’ve finally returned to it, I was surprised at how many details I’d forgotten, and how many new ones I noticed this time around.
What this book needs is a map. True, Red Sister itself takes place in a very small area, but we do hear about all these different places and people and it would be cool to have a visual layout of where everything is. Personally I feel that a map of the world always adds something to a fantasy novel or series and in this case, I would have loved to see a map of the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Map or no, the world-building was really good, if a little slow, but it all comes together eventually. The concept of the land of Abeth, mostly covered in ice due to it orbiting a slowly dying sun, with the long, narrow (not to mention fast-shrinking) Corridor along the equator being the only inhabitable region was so fascinating, not to mention the remarks about ruins of previous civilizations buried under the ice. Then there is the magic system of sorts which centres around four tribes from which people of this world descend. The more tribe blood you have, the more gifted you are: in strength, or speed, or the ability to work lesser or greater magics and walk the Path.
“Those that burn short burn bright. The shortest lives can cast the longest shadows.”
However, our main character Nona is what surprised me the most. Although she is only 9-12 years old throughout the book, she is an extremely mature and interesting character – unsurprising given her past – and watching her learn the ways of the Convent, learn about her abilities and make friends for the first time was quite engaging. Her arc, apart from the unusual, was very realistic, and I appreciated that Nona had to go through her share of troubles. Of course, there is also the curious ‘Chosen One’ plotline that crops up every so often, and a prophecy to boot, but different characters seem to have their own interpretation of its implications, consequently resulting in the title bouncing around between several people. I thought this was a unique way to handle this trope, without making it clear who was the Chosen One – atleast so far, or indeed, if there really is a Chosen One at all.
One thing I wasn’t too fond of was that a lot of character development seemed to take place off page. After Nona settles in at the Convent, there is a jump of two years or so to when she moves up from the Red Class to the Grey Class, and her demeanour is much changed, and it would have been nice to see more of how that came about. The pacing of adult fantasy is still something I’m getting used to, but in the case of Red Sister, it definitely felt like the story dragged its heels for the most part while the novices trained, attended lessons and shared stories. This is great for world-building and character backstories, but not so much when you just want to get to the point of the story.
This was my first time reading one of Mark Lawrence’s works, but after Red Sister, I will most definitely be checking out his other series as well. This was an entertaining read with no shortage of twists and shocking revelations and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the sequel – my library hold just came in!
Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments below!
All reviews in this series: