Series: Book of the Ancestor #1
Published by Ace on April 4th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Dark Fantasy
Our reviews of this author: The Liar's Key, The Wheel of Osheim, Grey Sister
Red Sister is the first book in the third series written by Mark Lawrence and I’ll start by saying it gets off to an excellent start.
I’ll give a brief overview of the plot. We make the acquaintance of Nona at the start of the story. She’s about to be fitted for a hangman’s noose for attempting to murder the son of a rather prominent member of society. Unsurprisingly, and not a spoiler to say, she never makes her final fitting – that would have been a very short book would it not! Before her execution can be carried out she finds herself rescued, or more succinctly put, stolen away by Abbess Glass of the Sweet Mercy Convent. Not yet ten years old Nona is different. The people of her village knew this, and mostly avoided her, until that cruel day on which she was given away to a child collector to be sold in the City. Abbess Glass recognises this difference and believes that rather than making Nona something to fear it makes her something special. From them on we spend time with Nona as she is initiated into the school and undertakes a number of trials and tribulations, eventually makes friends and puts the word ‘trust’ to the test.
Now, when I summarise the plot like that it seems, even to me, to be on the sparse side and yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is plenty going on here, we have a story that gradually reveals things from the past, we have the story as it moves forward in the present and we also witness some incredibly intriguing snippets taken from the future and that compulsion to read forward and find out how all these elements come together is strong indeed.
I confess that coming of age novels are something of a weakness for me and put the characters in a training/schooling setting and I’m probably ready to be bowled over. Yes, I loved Harry Potter – as did just about everybody I know – but, don’t pick this up thinking you’re picking up anything like HP – or YA for that matter. This book is dark, it’s bleak, the world is a slowly dying, cold and harsh place to live and there is bloody violence meted out by cruel and brutal characters.
There are certainly friendships developed, and indeed that particular aspect is one of the main focuses as the story moves forward but, be in no doubt, these girls are learning, more often than not the hard way, how to become cold blooded killers. Nona. Yes, she is an amazing character. Just to be clear, I don’t think she’s amazing simply because of her difference or her abilities, the power that lies beneath the surface, the simmering belief that she’s going to become kickass or the chosen one – no, I really liked her because of her vulnerability. Her need to be accepted and the desperation she feels that she never will be accepted because of her differences. She longs for friendship and this need makes her an unreliable narrator which in turn makes the story even more compelling as you strive to get to the truth. Put simply she doesn’t want people to truly know her because she learnt young in life that the truth will drive people away – so she tells untruths.
And there are plenty of other great characters. The Abbess herself, along with a couple of the other nuns made for great reading. I also really liked the addition of Zole – a really interesting character who I hope we learn more about. Not exactly a welcome addition to the Convent when she makes her first appearance but she has a lot to offer and I’m very curious about her. What I find myself particularly drawn to in books at the moment is character development and this story is strongly focused on the characters. Lawrence paints them in all their diversity with their fears and hopes, jealousies and ambitions. Nobody is truly good or bad, there are little shades of everything mixed in there.
In terms of the world – I’m not going to go into great depth. This series is known as the Book of the Ancestors and I think that tells a story by itself. Four tribes originally existed, all with different abilities. Strength, speed, magical ability or the ability to walk The Path. The blood from these tribes has been passed down but weakened over the years but every now and again a child will display a particular affinity for one of the original tribes. Nona is descended from the Hunska which means she has incredible speed – or does it mean that everything else around her slows down. Anyway, as the story moves along we find out a lot more about the magic involved such as the ability to walk The Path. We also learn that the world here is one that is narrowing. A thin corridor of habitable land surrounded by ice on both sides, perhaps a possible future, envisaged right here in which the sun is failing and the Moon is literally falling from the sky.
The icing on the cake of course is the writing. This book is just beautifully written. Lawrence twists and turns and takes us all along for the ride. He gives us the archetypal ‘chosen one’ stereotype and then proceeds to pull it apart. He delivers some real moments of betrayal and that ending. Exactly when is the next book due out.
So, all that said, I admit I really struggled to start this review because having read the Broken Empire and the Red Queen’s War my first instinct was to start by making comparisons. It’s natural to do so really and yet at the same time it was, to put it bluntly, simply doing my head in comparing them. At the end of the day they’re all intrinsically similar, the writing style and the bleakness of the world and yet, in frustratingly Golum like fashion, they’re also fundamentally different. So, is this Lawrence’s best work? Is Nona my favourite of his character creations. I don’t think I could answer that – it’s like when somebody asks you ‘what’s your favourite book’ What? How many favourites can I have?? Surely not just one. You might just as well ask me which is my favourite child. They’re all individual and I love them all.
A young girl with potential, a nunnery that trains it’s novices in the art of assassination and uses magic to help fulfil their aims. Smooth prose, bleak overtones and intriguing twists. Obviously I loved this.