I’ll admit, even with the strong recommendations I was getting for this book, I did have some trepidation picking up Red Sister. The only other work of Mark Lawrence that I’ve read previously was Prince of Thorns, which I had a lot of difficulties getting into.
The problem wasn’t so much with Lawrence’s prose, which I quite liked, or his world-building, but with his protagonist. While the story of an irredeemable psychopath does have the potential to be interesting, I found myself driven to apathy reading about him.
But a magical school full of little Arya Starks in training? That sounded a little more to my taste, so I decided to pick this up.
And I’m so very glad I did because this book is fantastic. Possibly one of the most engaging fantasy stories I’ve read all year. This was so enjoyable that I’m still in fussing about it a week later.
‘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.’
Now, how’s that for an opening line?
Red Sister starts with a choppy narrative, opening with a battle between an army and a Convent. It then jumps back to the plight of a little girl waiting to be hanged. (So, you’ll note that Lawrence has not decided to go all bubbly and happy on us.)
Little Nora Grey, still young enough to be in primary school if she were a modern child, is facing the gallows pole for her part in the murder of a pit fighter. Luckily for her, this has caught the attention of Abbess Glass of the Convent of Sweet Mercy, who thinks a nine year old able to take down a seven-foot-tall ring fighter is exactly the kind of student she needs. The Convent of Sweet Mercy dedicates itself to the worship (and preservation) of the Ancestors, a mysterious civilisation that predates their own. And their students? They’re training to be warrior nuns, proficient in physical arts, poisons and magic. A little girl capable of taking down a bear of a man is too good to leave with the executioner.
The narrative then continues to proceed in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth from Nona’s fish out of water experience at Sweet Mercy, to events in her village before she was sent away to the fighting pits. While this choice of narrative style could have easily been jarring, the time jumps are rather skilfully done and succeed in drawing you in rather than pushing you out.
Red Sister is partially a coming of age story, with Nona acclimatising to life in the Convent, making friends, and learning who she can and cannot trust. Nona’s prickly by nature, and while part of her really longs for friendship, she’s still dealing with the fact that she can’t stop subconsciously sabotaging herself. But this isn’t all jolly Hogwarts style adventures. The girls are learning more than just magic – they are learning to be assassins. If they befriend the wrong person or fail to become more politically aware, the stakes are much higher than twenty points off Gryffindor.
And this is where the second part of the plot comes in. Red Sister is set on a world with a dying sun. Much of the planet is covered in ice, and that ice is slowly encroaching on what habitable land is left. There are also hints that the technology of the Ancestors is the only thing that has allowed civilisation on the planet to survive so long, and without them, things are slowly coming apart. This hinted-at the backstory of the planet gives me some serious Coldfire Trilogy vibes, which I intend as an entirely flattering comparison.
While not as openly spoken about in the earlier parts of the book, the ice problem is generating a lot of political conflict over diminishing resources, and there is no way in hell that the church, including the Sweet Mercy Convent, is going to be able to remain apart from it. If the girls have vulnerable families or don’t take care of who they befriend outside of the Convent, they could be used by outsiders to maneuver against the very teachers who train them.
Both plot streams (if you will), build up to a gripping endgame, which damned near blew me away. And while it gives closure to one story arc, it leaves a strong set up for the next book in the series to spring from. This is the first book in a proposed trilogy, so I’m feeling very excited for the next two.
While the magical school style story is not exactly new or groundbreaking, I don’t think I’ve ever read one that’s been pulled off so well. And never fear if grimdark is not really your thing – Red Sister runs more towards bleak, with the occasional shining slithers of hope. I really cannot recommend this strongly enough.