Red Sister: Magic nuns. Need we say more?

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence epic fantasy book reviewsRed Sister by Mark Lawrence epic fantasy book reviewsRed Sister by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence‘s previous six novels have been interesting and unique in their own ways, but have also formed part of a recognizable corner of the genre. That is, Lawrence’s name often appears alongside those of Joe Abercrombie and R. Scott Bakker on lists with titles like “So You’ve Just Finished A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE — What Next?” This isn’t to say that the books set in Lawrence’s Broken Empire aped George R.R. Martin, only that they seemed to be riding the same swell of the zeitgeist, by which I of course mean medieval-esque Fantasy deconstructed, Fantasy with fewer gentle knights and wise wizards and more grime, grit, and blood.

The grime, grit and blood certainly make appearances in Red Sister, but otherwise Lawrence seems to be trying a new tack, and perhaps a slightly more old-fashioned approach. His elegant prose, inventive imagery, and fascinating world-building are still very much in evidence, but he’s traded in some of the other tools in his customary toolbox. Rather than the slightly more unusual first person narrative, we’ve instead gone to the more common third person limited. Rather than brutally subverting the old Tolkienian noble hero material, Lawrence has instead elected to sidestep into the almost equally venerable “Magic School” setting, complete with the usual tropes (only some of which are turned on their heads).

But before I proceed further, I should probably get to the plot summary. Our story concerns a girl named Nona, who is rescued from execution by an abbess and taken to live in a convent. But not just any convent. No, this is the Convent of Sweet Mercy, a training ground for girls with magical powers. In the world Lawrence has created, there are four strains of magical blood in humanity. One leads to growing up big and strong, one leads to being remarkably fast, and the other two lead to some form of magic. All children of magical bloodlines are rare and prized, but those scattered few who possess more than one bloodline ability are particularly important. It is rumored that an individual who combines several bloodlines could be the Chosen One (yes, there’s a Chosen One narrative) and capable of taking control of the world. Nona displays hunska blood (the speedy one) right from the start, but it is fairly apparent to the reader that she probably has another hidden ability as well. As the introverted Nona begins to open up and grow fond of her new home, she is forced to choose how much of herself and her past she is really willing to divulge… even to save her newfound sisters.

I hesitate to make a Harry Potter connection, because whenever the “magic school” concept rears its head, every reviewer alive seems to have to mention Hogwarts. That said, I’m obviously doing it anyway, because Lawrence seems as though he is making an intentional homage or in places a send-up. The world is very different from Potter’s (indeed, it’s very clever and I’ve never seen the concept before), but the school of magic with its classmates and eccentric teachers and looming exterior threat is similar enough that it was clearly something Lawrence is interested in engaging with or commenting on. He subverts some of the usual tropes pretty emphatically (the rich blonde rival does not turn into a Draco Malfoy clone this time around, for example), but seems happy enough to keep others relatively intact (Sister Wheel joins Professor Snape and Master Hemme in the “grouchy teacher with an axe to grind against the protagonist” club, though in fairness she is not without nuance in that role). Overall, though, whatever Lawrence has to say in regard to Potter and its ilk, he makes the setting and the tropes in play work for him. The convent felt defined and real to me, and I found myself caring a lot for many of Nona’s classmates and friends.

Nona herself is a more enigmatic character, both internally and externally to the narrative. She plays her cards very close to the chest and conceals her past from both the supporting cast and the reader. She is at once the most likeable of Lawrence’s protagonists (where Jalan was cowardly and Jorg was often a straight-up monster, Nona is genuinely brave and noble) and the most distant. This may be an issue for some readers who enjoyed the immediacy of Lawrence’s previous protagonists (Nona is definitely a little more reserved and cautious, which can make her seem less dynamic), but she is a well-crafted creation with consistent flaws, desires, and dreams. She is admittedly in her nascence at the moment, barely beginning her journey, but there’s a suggestion of great things to come in how thoroughly Lawrence has mapped her.

Red Sister has few flaws, but some readers may find that the pacing is a little slow in places (especially the first half), and that there’s some occasional dissonance between what the book seems to be trying to do and what the tone is suggesting. For instance, there’s the usual schoolkids adventure partway through where a crowd of plucky students happens on a crime in progress and for some reason decides to deal with it themselves rather than just reporting it to their teachers. There’s a justification for their decision, but it feels a little scanty, the kind of thing that would work better in a more whimsical, gentle kind of novel where the main characters can assume their own immortality more easily. Red Sister is just a little too tonally dark for that to be an easy sell. Despite his change in style, this is still very much Mark Lawrence we’re dealing with. The shadowy corners of his magic school are filled not with cartoonish villains twirling their mustaches but with very real savagery and threat of violence.

Overall, though, this is an excellent beginning to a new series and a new style for Mr. Lawrence. Red Sister is a thoroughly gripping coming-of-age novel in the tradition of Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind and Anthony Ryan‘s Blood Song, comparable to but also distinct from both. Mr. Lawrence’s prose is bleakly lovely and his characterization on point. The next book in the BOOK OF THE ANCESTOR trilogy seems much too far off.

~Tim ScheidlerBook of the Ancestor (3 book series) Kindle Edition


Red Sister by Mark Lawrence epic fantasy book reviewsIn a dying world, eight-year-old girl, Nona, has been rescued from execution and taken to the Sisters of Mercy Convert, a mysterious order that serve the Ancestor by means of political intrigue and espionage.

Where do I begin and can I do this without expletives?

This is a coming-of-age fantasy about a young girl. Exactly the kind of story I would go to great lengths to avoid. I don’t think I even read the synopsis before I started Red Sister. I pre-ordered it only because Mark Lawrence wrote it, but with an opening like:

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…

How could anyone not be hooked? Nuns who kick @$$; does it get any better than that?!? And that’s just the prologue. Check these first two sentences of Chapter 1:

No child truly believes they will be hanged. Even on the gallows platform with the rope scratching at their wrist and the shadow of the noose upon their face they know that someone will step forward, a mother, a father returned from some long absence, a kind dispensing justice … someone.

How does that not blow you away?!? (I did mention this girl is eight years old, right?) I’ve already read it, and I’m still like, “HOLY $#!+ this is insane!” Mark Lawrence should be awarded BEST OPENER IN SCI-FI/FANTASY.

Mr. Lawrence is, for better or worse, associated with grimdark. Just as it is with Joe Abercrombie, aka Lord Grimdark himself, the name Mark Lawrence is practically a synonym with grimdark. I’ve read all of Mr. Lawrence’s books which previously had all taken place in the world of THE BROKEN EMPIRE. So Red Sister is his first departure, in book form, to a different setting, but not only is a departure from that setting, it’s much different story than Lawrence, or anyone else for that matter, has written before. While his BROKEN EMPIRE trilogy is generally agreed upon as pure grimdark, and THE RED QUEEN’S WAR leaves some room for debate, I don’t really see Red Sister as being grimdark. It does have the gritty elements prevalent in the sub-genre. The world is certainly grim. It’s slowing freezing over from both poles outward, leaving only something like a fifty mile wide strip surrounding the planet that’s still habitable. (Just imagine, the world slowly shrinking over centuries while the population migrates to this last bastion of refuge. Imagine the harsh reality of only so much space for so many people, and even that is getting smaller.) Regardless, with some minor changes, Red Sister could be a YA fantasy. If Abercrombie’s SHATTERED SEA trilogy can be considered YA, then I don’t see why Red Sister wouldn’t be.

I’ve been singing Mr. Lawrence’s praises since I first read Prince of Thorns. It’s too soon to say if the BOOK OF THE ANCESTOR trilogy will be my personal favorite. However, I do predict that for any readers who haven’t yet heard about Mark Lawrence, Red Sister will be the book that will make him known in mainstream media.

~Greg Hersom


Red Sister by Mark Lawrence epic fantasy book reviewsRecorded books sent me a copy of their audio version of Red Sister. Since Tim and Greg have already thoroughly reviewed it, I’ll add a few thoughts of my own and give you my opinion of the audiobook.

I was intrigued by the world Nona lives in. Its sun is dying and the planet is freezing with, as Greg mentioned, only a narrow “corridor” where it’s still habitable. What we learn of the history of the world, and some of its hidden treasures, is especially intriguing. This aspect of the story reminded me a bit of Gene Wolfe’s NEW SUN epic.

In fact, while reading Red Sister, I found myself being reminded at times of several of my favorite SFF epics and I wondered whether this meant that Mark Lawrence was paying homage to them, or that perhaps I’ve just read too much speculative fiction in my lifetime. Either way, I enjoyed these little moments of connection with some of my old favorites.

There was something about Red Sister that didn’t work for me as well as it did for Tim and Greg. As Tim mentioned, the pacing is uneven and I didn’t feel invested until about the last quarter of the book. I suspect that part of the problem was (again, as Tim mentioned), Nona’s habit of keeping things close. We are seeing the world through her eyes and, while she drops hints about important bits of her history, she does not reveal all until the very end. Some readers may prefer this narrative technique since it provides an ongoing mystery with an exciting reveal at the end, but I found it off-putting and had a hard time feeling what I needed to feel for Nona to stay invested in her story.

I am sad to say that the audiobook narrator, Heather O’Neil, did not (in my opinion) serve the story well. She has a lovely voice, but I felt that her prosody was choppy and inconsistent at times and that she didn’t quite understand the tone that Lawrence was going for (I was confused on this, too) and that she didn’t get the occasional use of humor. I wasn’t sure if my failure to enjoy Red Sister as much as Tim and Greg did was caused by her interpretation of the text, but I suspect that I may have liked it better if I had read it to myself. Sometimes after listening to O’Neil read a passage, I had to reinterpret it in my head as I imagined Lawrence meant it to sound. However, judging from the reviews at Audible, though there are plenty of readers who agree with me, our opinion is the minority one.

This all sounds kind of negative, but as I mentioned earlier, I really am intrigued by Nona’s world and will probably choose to read the next BOOK OF THE ANCESTOR to see where this story is going.

~Kat Hooper

The international bestselling author of the Broken Empire and the Red Queen’s War trilogies begins a stunning epic fantasy series about a secretive order of holy warriors… At the Convent of Sweet Mercy, young girls are raised to be killers. In some few children the old bloods show, gifting rare talents that can be honed to deadly or mystic effect. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls. A bloodstained child of nine falsely accused of murder, guilty of worse, Nona is stolen from the shadow of the noose. It takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist, but under Abbess Glass’s care there is much more to learn than the arts of death. Among her class Nona finds a new family—and new enemies. Despite the security and isolation of the convent, Nona’s secret and violent past finds her out, drawing with it the tangled politics of a crumbling empire. Her arrival sparks old feuds to life, igniting vicious struggles within the church and even drawing the eye of the emperor himself. Beneath a dying sun, Nona Grey must master her inner demons, then loose them on those who stand in her way.

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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GREG HERSOM’S (on FanLit's staff January 2008 -- September 2012) addiction began with his first Superboy comic at age four. He moved on to the hard-stuff in his early teens after acquiring all of Burroughs’s Tarzan books and the controversial L. Sprague de Camp & Carter edited Conan series. His favorite all time author is Robert E. Howard. Greg also admits that he’s a sucker for a well-illustrated cover — the likes of a Frazetta or a Royo. Greg live with his wife, son, and daughter in a small house owned by a dog and two cats in a Charlotte, NC suburb. He retired from FanLit in Septermber 2012 after 4.5 years of faithful service but he still sends us a review every once in a while.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. This does sound intriguing!

    • Greg /

      It is really different. Like I say, this is not usually the kind of book I would like, but it really blew me away.

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