Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence (Book of the Ancestor #2)

I received an advance reading copy of Grey Sister in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Mark Lawrence and Ace Books for this opportunity. 

The second entry within the Book of the Ancestor trilogy picks up events approximately two years after the exceptional and breathtaking finale of Red Sister. Nona Grey: the black-eyed and shadowless novice is still studying potions, blade-path, kingdom histories, thread-weaving, and all the other dedicated and required lessons a potential religious assassin nun should be partaking in. Yet, she's no longer quite the same Nona Grey that we witnessed previously. 

"But I must warn you, sister, that a sickness runs in me, and if you fashion yourself my enemy I will make a ruin of your life, for I am born of war."

Due to Nona's often unpredictable skills and intelligence, she has been promoted to Mystic Studies, the next stage of qualifications at the convent of Sweet Mercy, where all revere the Ancestor. She has issues at this level with potential bullies, problems in certain studying areas, however, our main protagonist is deadly and she is haunted by her past actions, literally. Lawrence is known within the fantasy scene for possessing two extremely respected qualities throughout all his stories and both are showcased here in great fashion. He is arguably one of the darkest and most brutal writers currently working yet he's also the author whose words, prose, and unbelievable quotable segments can capture readers in a trance. Engaging almost like it is all subliminal written linguistics controlling us to emphasise the movements, moments and excitement that frequent every single one of his narratives. There is a reason that on Fantasy Book Review- he is one of the most consistent, top-rated current authors and his approximately yearly novel output puts the majority of his peers to shame. 

Red Sister was mainly focused on Nona Grey regarding her relationships with fellow students and side players being the focus of the action. Here, we have two, perhaps even three point of view perspectives. Nona is still the main individual and the most interesting to us even though she might not be the most important in the grand scheme of things. The other scripted perspective is Abbess Glass who is the leader of the nunnery. She's very wise, deep and oozes goodness but her narrative doesn't follow the sort of path the description may predict. Her chapters seemed to be shorter than Nona's and to begin with I only really cared about when Nona was there included and seen from Glass' viewpoint. They are very important; however, and towards the end, you equally want to see what happens to her just as much, and perhaps even more so than the trilogies lead cast member. In addition to their being more viewpoints, I found the so-called side characters much more fleshed out. Especially Zole, Ara, Kettle, and a newer entry called Keot. My mind is often dark so he was my favourite character in the whole story. Powerful perhaps, definitely mysterious and I read his words and voice with an intensity that is rarely created. "Tonight we will slice their throats as they sleep." 

I have to commend Lawrence for how deep and complex his world is that he has created within the constricting miles high walls of ice that are closing on the remaining villages and cities of the corridor. Grey Sister is brimming with religions, races, family trees, exquisite archaic books, bizarre poisons, more complicated antidotes, and a potential prophecy that certain characters may orchestrate then manipulate to try to destroy or save the world. 

The pacing and plotting are well worked out for the majority of readers. There was a section about half way through which caused me to not pick it up as frequently as I maybe should have. I love action, however; upon completing the book I saw that everything Lawrence did makes absolute sense, which is why he is the writer and I am not. About 30-percent through there is a twist that throws everything "into the wind." Then the last 30-percent is genius and unputdownable. This ending sequence follows two brilliant yet highly different variants of characters motives. The action sequences in these truly fluid segments were the sort I adore and often make me speechless. I had to re-read certain chapters. Not as I didn't understand what was stated but because I truly wanted to relive that scene once again before I moved on to the ever heightening and expressive climax. These sections included especially some of Keot's moments or when characters 'walked the path'. Even meeting the Noi-Guin, old favourites like Regol, and hearing rumours about Yisht, there is so much going on here that fans of the series will truly adore.

When I finished Grey Sister I then put the book down, took a deep breath and just reflected on what had taken place at the conclusion for the next half an hour. When a book has that effect on a reader then you know it is excellent and hits in all the correct emotional places. The finale is so surprisingly well worked. This book is full of elegant statements and deep passages. The whole ensemble shine. Blurb for publishers: Book of the Ancestor is Mark Lawrence's finest series by a great distance and Grey Sister is a far superior outing than the critically acclaimed first entry and his previous works. The characters are brilliant, the magic-scheme I raved about in the first book has impressed me far more this time for its creativity and intricacy sevenfold. The more devilish Nona gets the more intriguing she appears to us all. Blurb for readers: It's Mark Lawrence. So stop reading me and buy it.

9.7/10 - James Tivendale

Grey Sister brings us right back to Sweet Mercy, around two years after the gore-stained climax of the first book, where Nona Grey and her new dark passenger dream of deadly punishments for murderer Yisht while continuing a life of relative normality within the convent walls. We're back where we were before, we're learning about thread-weaving, we're fighting with mean girls, we're spending time with friends. It’s a moment of relative calm, with each girl honing her tribal talents and developing the specific skills necessary to succeed in the Order she hopes one day to attain. For Nona, the choice might seem obvious, she is destined for Red, yet the secrets she is hiding threaten not only her future as a fully fledged Sister, but her immediate safety and even her life. While her intelligence and inventiveness are tested within Sweet Mercy’s walls, the world outside arrives to shatter this fragile normality in their form of an Inquisition, an encroachment of high politicking only partially exposed in Red Sister, and the kind of high stakes games which jeopardise more than just Nona’s destiny. The tension created by the clash of two worlds is expertly done, the noose Nona escaped in Red Sister falling once again round her neck, and tightening with her every slip. Then in one sudden move, Mark Lawrence throws your every expectation to the wind and blows the future wide open. It’s the kind of sharp left turn that has your jaw dropping, but brings a huge smile to your face, knowing that dark deeds and bloody action are coming… 

The surprises mean that the wider world is more vividly portrayed than in the first book, with the created realm ever more revealed, both in the detailed scene setting and the world-large issues that are going to come more heavily to bear on the story. From the underground tunnels of the Tetragode, to the destructive power of the Ark controlled moon, there is an authentic interconnectedness, a multilayered and technicolour society with contemporary political, economic, and religious concerns built on a legendary and mythical past. This is a world that is changing and the scramble for power, which in itself reflects a greater competition for life giving land and resources, is more than just a backdrop for character action, it adds a tenseness you can feel in your gut. Nona is revealed to be only one part, though important, of a much larger struggle for survival- one which is going to be very difficult to ‘win’ in the traditional sense. While the respective players fighting each other provides some epic battles, it becomes ever more clear that each group is engaged in an intense, and until now hidden, competition for the means to deal with the coming disaster- an end to the world as they know it.

The complexity of the situation allows the characters really shine. Not only is there a more evolved version of Nona, a girl somewhat altered by the recent past but whose essential characteristics remain her most valuable strengths, the chapters from other perspectives allow for conflicting and more nuanced interpretations of events and individuals. Lawrence gives a lot of time to Nona and her friendship group, allowing the reader to feel like they really know them- their hurt, hatreds, or happiness authentically presented, driving their thoughts and actions. It puts you firmly on their side, the trust and loyalty of their friendships and the bonds of their community so positively contrasted with the greed and dishonesty, personal ambition and pursuit of power evinced by their enemies. The players of Team Bad seen just a little in Red Sister come fully into play here, with the Noi-Guin engaging in some serious badassery, but special mentions go out to the sly mercilessness of both Yisht and Sherzal. It’s wonderful to read a book filled with female characters who have real agency, regardless of their chosen side. And do they ever have some blade-sharp handiwork in this book. After the first quarter, it's packed with it. There's blood everywhere. Buckets of it. Dead people underfoot. Explosions. Surprises. Probably brain matter. It's messy. And worse, all the best scenes were underground- the mix of violent, bloody action and limited, uncertain space brings an edge-of-your-seat nervy claustrophobia, a need to escape that feels like you're the one trapped in the tunnels. Without doubt, some of Mark Lawrence’s best writing. To top it all, a finale so incredible it has to be read several times over… and then once more. I have no idea how he’s going to finish all this off in Holy Sister but, by the Ancestor, I can’t wait. 

ARC via Netgalley

9.5/10 - Emma Davis

And you thought your boarding school was tough…

There was a point in this story – around 60% -- when it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the rest of the book in one sitting. I immediately began rearranging my priorities over the next 24 hours to justify finishing it as soon as possible. (‘Do the kids REALLY need a bath? They’re just going to be covered in mud and paint again tomorrow…’ and so forth.) That’s when I realized that Mark Lawrence has once again set a new high mark for his impressive library of work with the second Book of the Ancestor, Grey Sister. Lawrence delivers breathtaking action scenes and harrowing moments of tension that further Nona’s story -- and the world at large -- in exciting new directions.

Nona’s latest journey is her greatest challenge yet, as she must come to terms with the source of her abilities. Her strength and speed are fueled by her anger. She’s able to walk the Path by drawing from her strongest emotions of failure and doubt. In addition, Nona faces several new handicaps throughout the story; there are times when she must fight to retain control of both her mind and her body in unprecedented ways. This is a welcome change from her development in Red Sister, in which she was just beginning to learn the extent of her capabilities. Now that she has a firmer grasp on her skills, one of the more interesting themes we explore is seeing if her anger and rage can be controlled, or the consequences of succumbing to these emotions.

Through the first third of Grey Sister, I’ll admit I was a bit concerned. The plot shared a lot of similarities with Red Sister -- perhaps too many. The story picks up the same evening where Red Sister left off, and plot threads are either resolved or put on hold.  We then time jump a couple of years into the future, and Nona, now 14 or 15 years old, is back in training. She's facing many familiar challenges: new classes to excel in or despise, and a new set of novice antagonists that threatens her existence in the convent. While the story is entertaining -- there's one excellent chapter where Nona is tested with both mind and body – some of it feels similar in structure the first book. But then the story takes an unexpected turn, and never looks back.

One of the many impressive aspects to this entry is how sneaky-clever the plot threads were tightened over the course of the story. We spend substantial time with some characters outside the convent, so we are treated to many more details of the world at large. I was appreciative that Lawrence expanded upon the basic tenets of the Corridor, as he goes into much greater detail in describing the neighboring kingdoms, the rule of law, the politics of the noble houses, and traditional customs of various sects. The clever bit was how all this information added up to some major revelations by book’s end. It’s as if you’re in World History class without even knowing it, and then you ace the surprise test.

Character progression is another major strength of this story. By book’s end, some characters are changed forever, albeit physically, mentally, or spiritually. We explore new facets of our main cast as they are forced to cope with ever-mounting, desperate situations. Some characters we follow hardly resemble their former selves by book’s end. Antagonists who start as innocuous foils progress into despicable villainy. Allegiances are tested, and ultimate sacrifices are made. And it all meshes seamlessly with some of Lawrence’s most creative and brutal action to date.

I can say with confidence that Grey Sister is the best story about magical murder nuns I’ve ever read. With greater focus on fewer characters, Lawrence has graced us with deep characterizations, complex relationships, and world-spanning events that sets the overarching story up for a thrilling finale. Any fan of Lawrence, or of dark and violent coming-of-age fantasy, would do well to spend a little time with Nona Grey. Highly recommended.

9.2/10 -- Adam Weller

10/10 The more devilish Nona gets the more intriguing she appears to us all. For readers: It's Mark Lawrence. So stop reading this and buy the book.

Reviews by and Emma Davis and Adam Weller

7 positive reader review(s) in total for the Book of the Ancestor series

Mark Lawrence biography

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Grey Sister reader reviews

9.5/10 from 1 reviews

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