Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence (Book of the Ancestor #3)

"The sound of a battle can be described as a roar, and sometimes it truly is. When a thousand warriors charge, a roar precedes them and swallows up all other noise. But in between charge and counter-charge there is the screaming of those too wounded to hold their peace and not yet close enough to crossing the Path that they fall silent. There is the clash of weapons, most often on shields, for tight-packed conflict is an ugly, graceless thing and there are few parries made. There are the desperate cries for aid and there is the sobbing of the lost."

Well, goddamn: cries into the sleeves of my sweater: This is going to be a hard review to write because... because of many reasons. The fact that it is the third and final book, for one. But mainly because I am just so fucking happy that this series exists! I truly love it so damn much! Often expressing the scope of your love is harder and I feel that may be the case with this review. I'll probably (hopefully) say a lot without saying too much of anything!

To fully grasp the level of feels Holy Sister gave me when I closed the final page after finishing the book... picture this: Me, curled up in a ball, rocking back and forth, sobbing about Nona and what an exceptional character she is. There you have it! That's the TL;DR version of this review.

I adore how Mark Lawrence always provides a Story So Far for his books. It seriously delights me every time having that refresher! Especially since the wait for this final book has seemingly felt like a decade. Oof.

The timeline of Holy Sister covers two different periods - present day and three years prior, which immediately follows the events in Grey Sister. The threads that Mark Lawrence weaves between these narratives is masterful. Everything just... fits. The way the story unfolds is so clever and never felt convoluted.

The Book of the Ancestor series is, at its most basic, a coming-of-age grimdark tale. But, oh. It is infinitely more than that. Poignant, immersive, gritty. The worldbuilding is expertly done, yet we barely glimpse how vast it actually is. There is a wealth of stories that could be told within this world, if Lawrence so chooses. I know I'm not the only one that would be insanely overjoyed to have more. I feel as though I'm not ready to leave, just yet.

I've said it before and I'll continue to say it... Nona is one of my favorite characters in ANYTHING. Books, movies, television. Which is saying a lot, because Nona Grey is a hero. She is a flawed, complex, BADASS WARRIOR... but at her very core, she is a hero with a genuine heart that is surrounded by violence and death. I tend to gravitate towards the anti-heroes, the morally grey individuals. There are many layers to an anti-hero. They are just so damn fun to read (and write!) But the real world, the world we live in at this very moment? It's bleak as fuck as it is. And I'm finding it's okay to look for the heroes amid the darkness. Nona just completely encompasses this. She is a loyal friend, compassionate, intelligent. She is a hero that isn't cut from the traditional cloth. That is the underlying factor in what makes her such an enthusiastically wonderful character for me, personally. There is no one else quite like Nona Grey!

With the conclusion of Holy Sister wrapping up the Book of the Ancestor series, it is now cemented in my top favorites of ever. EVERRR. Few series can compare to this for me. Mark Lawrence always slays, page after glorious page. He could write a grocery list and I would be like YES! OMFG THIS IS GENIUS! THE WAY HE OUTLINES THE FOOD REQUIRED IS UTTER PERFECTION! WE ARE TRULY IN THE MIDST OF A MASTERMIND! But for real. This is my 11th Mark Lawrence review and I'm running out of superlatives to describe just how brilliant of a writer he is! It's like watching this incredibly beautiful symphony, the way he orchestrates a story.

Holy Sister was such a powerful ending to an inspiring series, which is, without a doubt, Lawrence's magnum opus.

"Some lessons must be written in scars..."

Read it. Find yourself immersed within vivid worldbuilding. Have your emotions ravaged by the most gorgeous prose. Love these characters with your whole being.

I cannot recommend a series higher!

-Holly (Sister)

(Massive thanks to Ace Books for sending me a copy to gush and flail over!)

**The quotes above were taken from an ARC & are subject to change upon publication**

This review orriginally appeared here.
Holly Grimdragon, 9.5/10

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.

9.7/10 -- Emma Davis

Growing up can be tough. One day you’re sneaking home past curfew from a sexy rendezvous with your partner, and the next day you’re being hunted across a frozen wasteland carrying a relic that’s trying to poison your mind. We can all relate. But just in case you can’t, then the concluding entry in Nona Grey’s story will bring you up to date. In Holy Sister, the third and final entry in his Book of the Ancestor series, Mark Lawrence has crafted a powerful and heartbreaking ending to Nona’s story. Like Lawrence’s earlier trilogies The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War, there exists a fine balance of tragedy and hope in a world on the eve of an apocalypse. The author excels at weaving compelling tales of humanity as it is pushed to the brink of extinction, and The Book of the Ancestor series is his strongest work to date.

(Warning: I will be discussing events related to Red Sister and Grey Sister below. If you haven’t read them yet, turn back now.)

One of the more interesting aspects of the story is its narrative structure. We spend much of the early part of the book jumping back and forth between two time periods. When we last left Nona and Zole and the rest of the survivors from Sherzal’s palace, they were being hunted for their stolen shipheart. We spend some chapters following up on those events and discover the true fallout of the Convent of Sweet Mercy’s actions. The second timeline jumps a few years forward, and we pick up with Nona and her small group of allies enacting a mysterious plan amidst an unstoppable Scithrowl invasion. I appreciated this novel approach to the story structure as opposed to breaking it into two halves with a time jump in the middle. Discovering the cryptic details of the plan while switching off to an action-fueled escape sequence pushed the story forward at a tremendous pace. 

The time jump also brings Nona into adulthood. Her age is still unknown, even to her, but she is likely pushing 19 or 20. Her burden of responsibility has expanded beyond just her circle of friends. She is feeling the weight of the world quite literally closing in on her. This serves as an accurate metaphor for achieving the early stages of adulthood: the world grows larger and smaller all at once. Although she has shown great leaps in maturity since her early days in the convent, Nona still struggles to make the right choices. She is the most powerful when she is fueled by anger, but those instances don’t always lead to the best decisions. The balance that Nona finds between the two is a testament to Lawrence’s ability to provide a strong characterization that feels real and relatable. We’ve all made rash, emotion-based decisions when we were young. With Nona, it just happens to be life-or-death situations more often than not. 

I’ll say little of the conclusion other than it being an incredibly emotional sendoff of characters that I’ve grown quite fond of. There are more than a few big surprises and an equal number of heartbreaks as both major and minor character arcs draw to a close. Overall, this is a brilliant series from one of the top names in speculative fiction, and will be on most “best of” lists by year’s end. Don’t miss it.

9.5/10 -- Adam Weller

10/10 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.

Reviews by and Emma Davis and Adam Weller

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

Mark Lawrence interview

Holy Sister reader reviews

9.6/10 from 1 reviews

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