I may have been introduced to Mark Lawrence in spectacular, brutal fashion with his Broken Empire trilogy, but Red Sister proves that the man can create truly compelling, emotionally gripping stories – and he doesn’t need shock value to keep his readers hooked.
Nona Grey is only eight when she is sent to the noose, sentenced for a crime she didn’t commit. But at the last moment she is saved, sold, to the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where young girls are raised to be killers, and is inducted into their order. There the Sisters instruct their novices in the ways of blade and fist, honing the gifted talents of the few old bloods – remnants of the ancient tribes. But the Convent has no idea what they have brought into their Order, and Nona is sought by powerful enemies and haunted by her own violent past. Her only choice is to train as a deadly assassin and come to terms with her own demons, if she is to have any chance of survival.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up another series by Mark Lawrence – whether the same brutality from Prince of Thorns would follow me here into an entirely new setting and story. To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with grimdark, violence, or even a bit of shock value once in a while, and I enjoyed the Broken Empire books (and I will get to the last one soon, I promise!) – but there’s always a risk of an author relying on being shocking in order to carry a less-than-stellar story.
That is definitely not the case here.
The world of Abeth is less outright brutal than the kingdoms of the Broken Empire, but that doesn’t make it any less bleak and harrowing. Rather than something to be fought against and conquered – if only momentarily – all that matters in this world is to survive: the sun and stars are red and dying overhead, and the only thing keeping the world from freezing over with ice is the light of the moon, and even that is slowly, but surely falling from the sky. The whole world is dying, and I found that slow sense of dreaded inevitability absolutely fascinating: if the world is coming to an end around you, what do you find to live for?
The answer, at least as far as Nona Grey is concerned, is friendship. You will never meet a heroine who so desperately longs for friendship, and yet considers herself utterly unworthy of it. Nona is strong, fearless, and at times seems utterly unstoppable as she learns to fight and kill under the tutelage of the Convent, but she’s also incredibly vulnerable, and her absolute devotion to her friends is what defines the very core of her. She was an absolute joy to follow – equal parts bitter and cynical about the ways of the world, and yet utterly innocent when it comes to the bonds of friendship and camaraderie.
“Trust is the most insidious of poisons. Trust sidesteps all of your precautions.”― Mark Lawrence, Red Sister
The rest of the characters – really the entire Convent itself – are packed full of lively, and fascinating girls, all of whom felt very well defined and fleshed out. It’s rare that any of the novices or teachers felt like an afterthought – they were all real characters with motives and relationships that went on outside of the story. And it was really nice to see so many female characters with drive and agency – and the fact that they can all kick ten kinds of ass is the cherry on top.
My only critique is that, while the story is an excellent depiction of the daily life of students – even if this curriculum includes punching and poisoning – it can also feel like the daily life of students. A lot of exciting things happen, but some of the chapters in between don’t feel like they are building to these climactic moments. Sometimes, it’s just a day in the life of the Convent, a place often absolutely isolated from the rest of the world – and, it seems, from the rest of the plot – and it’s only when trouble arrives at their gates that the story gets some real momentum again.
Fortunately, despite the narrative slowing down between major events, life at the Convent is still pretty fascinating, and Nona’s struggle to make friends and deal with her own demons kept me going even through the slower parts. And when the plot does take the reins again – wow!
Every star, turning in the black depth of heaven, burns for no better reason than that humanity raised its face to look. Every great deed needs to be witnessed. Go out there and do something great.― Mark Lawrence, Red Sister
I really enjoyed this book: it’s smart, interesting, and filled with peril without being overtly brutal. This is definitely a case of personal taste here, but if you want to check out Mark Lawrence’s books, but don’t want to start with Prince of Thorns, I’d absolutely recommend this book. It’s still got its share of hard, violent moments, but with enough levity, and sweet moments of friendship and connections to give any reader a sense of hope within the darkness. Lawrence’s talent really shines through here, and I will definitely be picking up the next book in this trilogy very soon.
Final Thoughts: A far more lighthearted, but no less intense and gripping, narrative and a heroine that anyone could root for. Red Sister is a wonderful, touching story about the bonds of friendship, and what we are willing to sacrifice for what matters most.
Thanks for reading everyone.