Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence

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Rating 9.7/10
An exceptional series and by far my favourite of Mark Lawrence’s work. It has that something that sets it apart. It has the deft, unexpected characterisation, the perfect turn of phrase, the killer hook we’ve seen before in his other series, but this has a magic all of its own.

When writing about a book that’s the third and final in a trilogy, there’s only so much that can be said without edging into spoiler territory. So this review, if it can be called that, is done with the lightest touch, hopefully just conveying some sense of the range of feelings the books evoked in me.

More than almost any other series I’ve read, the three novels which form the Book of the Ancestor feel like one continuous story. Perhaps this is a reflection of the way the oft quoted opening line ‘it is important,, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size’ links the prologue in a surprising way to the trilogy’s finale. It’s only at the end that you can truly see the shape of it; the beauty of story made circular. If not for the considerations of time and space, the books would be best read straight through. For all those who haven’t started this series yet, and I recommend you get right on that, give yourself some time to experience the wholeness of it. From the finish, the artificial boundaries made by the division into three seem somewhat arbitrary and while the first two books conclude with explosive and brutally fun high action set pieces, they don’t necessarily serve to illuminate the really significant junctures of the story. Or at least, not all of them. This is a character-driven narrative and Nona's journey, her growth, is a continuous thing. There’s an equality of significance given to all types of moments, the smaller, private ones having as much impact for Nona as the ones she faces blade in hand. Each builds upon the other so that the world-altering choices she makes at the end of Holy Sister can only be understood in terms of the entirety of her experience. Our assumptions about her path, directed in part by the tricksy author and in part by what we ‘know’ about fantasy writing, lead us to believe in what seems like an inevitable conclusion, yet those expectations are repeatedly demolished. The lessons she’s learned aren’t the ones you think. And that means she never ceases to surprise.

The pacing in this book follows a similar structure to Grey Sister. It starts out in an interesting but measured fashion, so much that you wonder if it’s going to be like this all the way through, then it’s all whatthehellyoucantdothatohmygodThe End. Once it hits a certain part, be prepared to go all the way. You won’t be putting the book down, that’s for sure. It epitomises the reading experience I’ve had throughout the series, an essential contradiction of which I can’t help be aware. Namely, that the action scenes are so good, and I mean ridiculously good, that I’m constantly jonesing to get to them as soon and as often as possible, but that none of those moments would be anywhere near as affecting or effective if I didn’t care as much about the characters, a depth of feeling built in the slower moments. The space utilised on what may initially seem like trivialities, Nona’s schooling/training, for example, is where relationships develop in to the type of bonds that will save the world. Nona’s foundations are her friendships, the love and loyalty that bind her to other people. It might take time to show that to the reader but the payoff is huge. 

The close focus shapes the whole story. This is a book that dares to put things offstage, battles detailed only when literally they turn up on Nona’s doorstep. How many other authors would put a whole war in the background? Most of what the reader knows is through Nona and if she’s not there to see it only so much can be told. As in Grey Sister, there’s some scope for alternate viewpoints, through Kettle for example (as an aside, I love Kettle, she’s the best character in the series. Come at me), but there’s this brilliant dichotomy between a comprehensive, multilayered world that clearly and vibrantly exists and the limited slice we get to see. In the dual timeline of this book, it allows scope for playing with what’s known by various characters, deepening the layers of the intricate, high-stakes plots, and heightening tension via misdirection and the withholding of knowledge. Only when seen from the end, when the circle is completed, can we discern how the long game played by Abbess Glass fits together. Only then can we see who Nona really is. And none of it will turn out as you imagined.

An exceptional series and by far my favourite of Mark Lawrence’s work. It has that something that sets it apart. It has the deft, unexpected characterisation, the perfect turn of phrase, the killer hook we’ve seen before in his other series, but this has a magic all of its own. I can’t explain it and I’m not going to try. I cheered and I cried. Then I cried some more. I was surprised, amused, and devastated. The author snuck in some stuff that I can’t even talk about because its spoilery, but damn I didn’t see that coming. As for a happy ending? Well, you know who wrote it, right??? That’s all I’m saying. 

Make sure this is on your 2019 reading list. Highly recommended.

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All reviews for: Book of the Ancestor

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