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Red Sister is one of the first books I ever read by Mark Lawrence, and I’ve been hooked to his writing ever since. It’s a coming-of-age fantasy story, and I loved every bit of this book. With a length of 469 pages for the hardcover edition, it’s perfect for both YA or adult readers. Mark Lawrence used to be a research scientist focused on the field of AI, and he usually finds a way to brings some of that science background into his work.
Nona Grey is saved from the gallows by the Abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy. However, she’s still not safe: accused of murder, powerful enemies seek her still. Luckily, the Convent of Sweet Mercy is no ordinary nunnery: it raises young girls to be assassins. Some with special gifts that come from the old bloods of the tribes on Abeth. While secure in the Convent, her violent past still tries to surface. Will Nona come to terms with her demons and learn to be a deadly assassin so she can survive?
“A book is as dangerous as any journey you might take. The person who closes the back cover may not be the same one that opened the front one. Treat them with respect.”
Red Sister is an incredible story about friendship and sisterhood. There are especially some great action sequences throughout the story that are violent and bloody, just like we’re used to from Mark. The story is split into two halves: there’s the beginning of Nona’s training at the Convent, and then the second half skips some time where she’s in Grey class. Both halves are equally thrilling with some great climaxes that made for very satisfying endings.
The story has some time-jumps where we get more glimpses of the past. This is quite common in Mark’s work, but I think he’s done it expertly in Red Sister, and the Book of the Ancestor trilogy as a whole. The glimpses to the past come at the right moments to reveal new information to the reader at crucial times that make climactic moments even better. What’s also brilliant is that in some of these time-jumps, Nona herself tells the story of her past, and she’s not always a reliable narrator when she does this. I thought this was a great innovation of the reliable narrator trope, because we know she’s lying, but we don’t know what the truth is either.
The story follows Nona Grey, a 9-year-old girl, given away to the child-taker for free, with blood-stains on her shirt. She’s both violent and quick to anger, and fiercely loyal to her friends and capable of so much love. She will fight with tooth and nail to protect the ones she considers friends, which is also what gets her into trouble in the first place. I just couldn’t help but fall for this dark, yet empathetic character.
Other than Nona, there are many great side-characters in the Red Sister. Since most of it takes place in the Convent, most of the characters are women and girls. All of them are incredibly written and realistic: there are the ‘pretty girls’ with the long, blonde hair, large girls, plain girls, you name it. None of them feel stereotypical. Even Ara, who comes in the Convent as one of those pretty girls from a Royal house, ends up being way more than just that beautiful girl. I love that the story features so many kick-ass women of so many shapes, sizes, and personalities. The interactions between the characters are one of the main reasons that make Red Sister so great. Not to mention that it’s enlightening to read how casual and completely normal it is to have a lesbian relationship — if only that were true in real life.
“Trust is the most insidious of poisons. Trust sidesteps all of your precautions.”
I might use the word ‘love’ a lot in this review. But I love Abeth; I just can’t help it! It’s a post-apocalyptic world with a dying sun, the only heat coming from the artificially made focus moon by the old tribes, which can only be controlled by the tribesmen’s ships. This moon creates enough heat to make the corridor. All the rest of the planet is covered in ice. There are so many great details in there. The magic system is also based on the tribes: they were of four ‘races,’ each with their magic ability. The old blood still shows in some individual, who then also show these abilities. The Convent itself also feels like an authentic place: placed on the top of a windy rock. There’s more than enough to appreciate about Abeth.
“I have been too young to know, and I have been too old to care. It’s in that oh so narrow slice between that memories are made.”
I absolutely love Mark’s prose (yep, I said love again), and it doesn’t fail in Red Sister. Beautiful descriptions and philosophical ponderings. Sometimes it feels more like reading poetry. Despite the sometimes more flowery language, it’s still very readable. All information comes at the right times, and there was a good balance between descriptions and actions. I never felt bored while reading it, and I wanted just to keep on reading. Red Sister managed to make me feel excited, anxious, sad, and surprised. Only good writing can make you feel while reading, and to me, Red Sister is a masterwork.
“There are some things that must be done quickly or not at all. If someone asks you if you love them you cannot hesitate. There are some paths that must be taken at speed.”
To sum it all up: Red Sister is a fantastic story, filled with love, friendship, and bloody violence: a perfect mix. The writing and world-building are impeccable, with many great details, and you will stay up all night wanting to read more. I would always recommend Red Sister, especially if you like stories with a tad more violence and slightly darker characters. You do have to like the style of Mark’s writing, as his prose is probably not for everyone. If you’re more a fan of easy-to-read, clear-cut writing than this might not be the book for you. Otherwise, read it, and I promise you won’t regret you did.
Have you read Red Sister? Or other books by Mark Lawrence? What were your thoughts of the book? Also, if you have any comments and/or questions about this review, I’d love to hear it in the comments!