With over a million copies sold worldwide and two quality trilogies under his belt, Mark Lawrence definitely deserves to be ranked among the very best fantasy authors out there. Indeed, with each new novel, he continued to make a name for himself, always pushing the envelope a bit further with plotlines that grew in depth and scope. It's obvious that "That thorn guy," as George R. R. Martin referred to him a couple of years ago, has come a long way since Prince of Thorns was first published.
The Broken Empire and The Red Queen's War series shared the same universe, but The Ancestor trilogy marks the beginning of something brand new. I was looking forward to reading Mark Lawrence's forthcoming Red Sister to discover if he could do it again with new protagonists, a new setting, and new storylines. In the end, I shouldn't have worried, for Lawrence's name has become synonymous with fun and interesting reading experiences. Red Sister sets the stage for what should be another satisfying series.
Here's the blurb:
I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin. At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse. Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…
Mark Lawrence's books are always character-driven works, yet worldbuilding nonetheless played a somewhat important role in both The Broken Empire and The Red Queen's War series. The Ancestor trilogy features a dying sun and a planet left with only a 50-mile wide corridor running along the length of its surface heated by a focus moon that allows mankind to survive from the encroaching ice that covers the globe throughout both hemispheres. I found this fascinating and it appears that control of the focus moon might become an integral part of the plot in subsequent installments, so I'm curious to find out what happens next. Little is known and/or remembered of what has been trapped under tons of ice over the centuries, and it will be interesting to see if the hints of hidden and nefarious powers from the deep will come into play as the tale progresses. The world of Abeth was colonized ages before by four different alien races known as the Gerant, the Hunska, the Marjal, and the Quantal. Descendants from these four "tribes" may have inherited special powers or abilities associated with each bloodline. Mixed bloods can potentially be even more powerful. The remains of their ancient spacefaring vessels are known as shiphearts. And though they are buried deep underground, somehow their presence influences magical energies in their vicinity. Hence, as was the case in the previous two trilogies, it appears that age-old technology might play a role in The Ancestor series as well. The author keeps his cards pretty close to his chest throughout this novel, but it is evident that there is much more to Red Sister than meets the eye. Time will tell if this new trilogy will echo with as much depth as its predecessors.
The structure of the novel is unlike that of Jorg and Jalan's tales. In both The Broken Empire and The Red Queen's War series, the reader was thrown into an ongoing story, with flashback scenes filling in the blanks along the way. The Ancestor follows a more traditional format, with a young and more or less clueless main protagonist. The structure is comprised of an introduction, a middle portion, and a conclusion, and readers learn about the world and the plotlines at the same pace as the characters. I must admit that this seriously slows down the rhythm of this book and it can be off-putting at times. There is no helping it, true, as Nona, coming in at eight years of age when we first meet her, doesn't have the knowledge or the experience to carry the tale on her shoulders from the beginning. The Convent of Sweet Mercy serves as one of the genre's oldest tropes, that of the magical school/university. Essentially, Red Sister follows Nona's first two years of schooling and training at the convent, known as Red Class and Grey Class. There are a few flashback sequences to explain how the girl was abandoned, but other than that the plot moves forward as Nona's education proceeds. Interestingly enough, either in an attempt to do some foreshadowing, or just to mess with our minds, Lawrence included three scenes taking place in the future, one in the prologue, another one between the first and the second part, and the last one in the epilogue. They feature a much older Nona and show that the proverbial shit has just about hit the fan and that things are coming to a head. Which bodes well for the two sequels, Grey Sister and Holy Sister.
Ye of little faith that I am, I have to say I had some concerns about Nona. Not necessarily because of her young age, though that certainly came into play, but more because the spark that generated the idea that led to the creation of her character was the illustration of a young badass female figher; a female version of Jorg Ancrath. She is about to be executed when we are introduced to her, so that makes for quite an impression. Forsaken and friendless, Nona Grey is a tough nut to crack. She doesn't open up easily, to other people as well as to the readers. Although it is easy to root for her, given that all the odds appear stacked against her, it is nevertheless difficult to relate to Nona. After following the misadventures of the easy-going and likeable Jalan, it takes a while to finally get used to Nona and her quirks. Witnessing events unfold through her eyes also makes it harder to get to know her fellow novices and the rest of the supporting cast. This is probably why her special bond with the crippled Hessa provided such truly poignant moments. By the end of Red Sister, Nona will come to know who she can trust and who her true friends are. She'll come to understand where she fits in the greater scheme of things. Gaining such insight and maturity will likely make it easier for readers to follow Nona and relate to her in the upcoming sequels.
As mentioned, the pace can drag in certain portions of this books. Understandably, with the plot moving forward at the same speed as Nona's training, it doesn't always make for thrilling scenes. Mind you, there are more than a few of those, especially toward the end. All those classes with various Sisters often make you wish for something to happen, to kickstart the story somehow. And yet, I have a feeling that Lawrence was laying a lot of groundwork in each of those scenes and that everything will come together later on and play an important role in future volumes. As slow-moving as the rhythm can be in the first two-thirds of the novel, there is no denying that the endgame puts everything into high gear, and Red Sister features Lawrence's best finale since Emperor of Thorns. Sadly, the author foreshadowed what was surely meant to be a shocking betrayal a bit too much, which allowed me to see it coming from a mile away. That was a bit of a disappointment, as, thus far at least, Mark Lawrence had always been able to keep me on my toes. Still, that finale and the future scene contained in the epilogue will make you eager to get your hands on Grey Sister as soon as it comes out!
In the end, though it suffers from uneven pacing, Red Sister is a multilayered introduction that sets the stage for what should be yet another enjoyable and captivating series!