Red Sister by Mark Lawrence (Book of the Ancestor #1)

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is a new story in a new world by an author who is trying (and succeeding in my opinion) to stand out as one of the premier fantasy storytellers of the last few years. It is a story set in a world of great challenge, where the environment itself works against the people who rely on it, about a bunch of gifted individuals who can do great things when they work together. This is, yet again, a supremely accomplished story by Mr Lawrence which I will have no problems recommending to any reader of fantasy novels.

The story follows Nona, a young girl cast out by her family and village because there is something not quite right about her. Her agency is taken away from her as she bounces around from village to slave master to fighters guild to death row before finally being taken in by the sisters of the Sweet Mercy convent, who immediately see the potential that Nona possesses and pledge to make the most of it. Thus begins the story of a young girl, fighting not only to make the most of her potential, but fighting just to prove herself amongst a cohort of young girls who would love to see her fail.

Red Sister is a magical academy story. Young farm girl born into a situation where the world is against her finds out she has magic powers and is part of some great prophecy, which she can only fulfill by completing her magical training. Lawrence does plenty to differentiate his story from the standard fare of magical academy stories, but it’s still hard to think of this story as something other than Harry Potter meets Earthsea / Name of the Wind. There are a few stand out scenes, such as the scene with the candle or the first time Nona takes a few steps along the path, but the rest are just what you would expect from a magical academy story.

My favourite part of a Lawrence story are the characters, and for Red Sister it’s no different. Nona is fantastic, more serious like Jorg than free-wheeling like Jalan, but with so much personality that she can stand on her own as a big-hearted warrior without the need for comparison against other Lawrence characters. What I liked most where her relationships with her friends, and her relationships with her teachers - it felt far more realistic than other magical academy stories and made this book so much more readable. I think I would have preferred to experience Nona's story in first person like we did with Jorg and Jalan - I got everything I needed in terms of story but I missed the truly personal storytelling that Lawrence gave us in the Broken Empire novels. Also what I think was lacking was Lawrence's dry wit, something very present in Jorg and Jalan's stories but fleeting in Nona's story. If this story had been written by anyone else I probably wouldn't have noticed, but because it's a Lawrence story I was hanging out for more of his cutting insight than what was delivered. It’s a very small detail, but one that sticks out to me simply because of the calibre of the author.

In short, Mark Lawrence proves once again that he is a master storyteller who can craft amazing worlds and fill them with awesome characters. While I might have liked the Broken Empire stories more than Red Sister, this book is clearly superior to many of the fantasy stories that have come out in the last few years. I can't wait to read more of Nona's story - I have no idea where it's going but I'm desperate to find out.
Ryan Lawler, 9.5/10

I received an advanced copy of Red Sister from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to announce my gratitude to Mark Lawrence, Ace and Berkley Publishing Group for this opportunity.

Throughout this narrative, we flaunt within the mind of and follow the actions of Nona. Our protagonist is a young girl who we are introduced to initially whilst she is awaiting execution via the gallows for killing a renowned pit-fighter. Luckily for Nona, it just so happens that Abbess Glass, who manages the Sweet Mercy Convent has taken such an interest in her hardships that she offers her the option of joining the nunnery as a Novice, thus escaping the impending death sentence. A large contingent of the interested parties are not particularly happy with this outcome. Perhaps the reason being that Nona did murder the son of one of the wealthiest and proudest men in the world. The repercussions of this singular act ripple throughout the tale.

Nona, a fiery but slightly damaged peasant with talents she doesn't truly understand then finds herself in the establishment where the Sisters of Sweet Mercy frequent. It is here where they train future nuns within certain art forms and most importantly, where all revere the Ancestor. Did I mention that these novices are trained to become some of the deadliest killers in the land for their Holy purposes?

"It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.

The nunnery is reminiscent of the magic schools such as those created within The Kingkiller Chronicles and A Wizard of Earthsea. Claustrophobic atmospheres, close friendships, harsh teachers, bizarre traditions, bullies and the ultimate shaping of the raw talents shown by Nona, and others; into what their potential will allow. Nona reminded me of Sonea from the Magician's Trilogy. They are similar with their poor upbringing, attending establishments of special education against the wishes of many influential individuals and also, whispers that they are some kind of "chosen one". This is a lot darker than Trudi Canavan's trilogy. The vein here is more sinister, despondent and Nona's past seems extremely more tortuous than Sonea's did.

A large percent of Red Sister is set within the convent. The trials and tribulations here, in some aspects, are similar to youth experienced by all young girls such as making friends, dealing with bullies and disliking teachers amongst other dramas. What isn't similar to our world is that the novices become trained in extreme fighting (using fists, knives and throwing stars), taught about poisons and other skills that readers would describe as magical. The convent also has what is known as the Blade Path, which is a timed assault course like activity which would put army endurance tests to shame. In addition to the antics at the convent, the nuns and novices travel elsewhere in this world should their studies find it befitting, such as training with other youths at The Academy. The escapades elsewhere mainly lead them to the capital city of Verity, however; I will not say much about the storyline when the sisters are "unleashed" from their habitual establishment. A highly intriguing aspect of this book was the ingeniously placed flashback sections regarding Nona's youth prior to being found guilty of murder. Examples include juggling lessons and her being abandoned by her family. Each flashback adds an extra layer to Nona's already intricate, complex and perhaps even notorious character.

In Lawrence's envisaged world, the moon is falling, there are two miles high fields of ice encompassing the majority of the globe leaving The Corridor where the action takes place and also, one of the finest "magic-systems" I have ever seen depicted in fantasy.

The "magic-system" is labyrinthine in its complexity. I used quotation marks with that phrase as to describe it as being as simplistic as that statement is underwhelming for what has been created. For precision, complexity and potential - the magics are potentially on par with the Warrens used in Malazan and Allomancy in Mistborn. At the moment, as stated, I would say they are on par, however; we have no idea of the full possibilities. We were given glimmers throughout of the extra powers certain characters witnessed without understanding and which they could learn when older to manipulate to their will. It is exciting. There is a good mix of John Woo: Stranglehold like slowdown of time, thought control, mind sharing, walking "The Path" to obtain phenomenal destructive power, Witcher-like tracking senses amongst other talents. The skills they have acquired depend on which of the four legendary Abeth tribes these novices descended from.

The fabrication of the abnormal powers seems confusing at first but I believe this is intentional. Nona is of course, in an educational environment and as she learns about the magic, possibilities, poisons and histories of the world, then we as readers learn it also. Our gaps in knowledge are filled as the tale progresses, with the necessary information as Nona learns herself; which equals heightened affinity to our protagonist because we are going through the same learning issues and symptoms.

This book has scenes of macabre and harrowing happenings but it will then switch back to a pleasant scene in the Convent's dormitory where Nona, as a 9-year-old is gossiping about the happenings in the nunnery and also chatting to her fellow novices about families and friends as young children would. These scenes brought me metaphorically back down to Earth where I had to put the book down for a second and re-analyse that these girls were that young going through what would make many grown men weak at the bladder. It is a great juxtaposition and unifies Nona's relationship with important characters such as Ara, Hessa, Zole and Clera.

The finale of this story was utterly breathtaking. Nona is one of my favourite characters in fiction. Lawrence has created one of the most engaging fantasy worlds that my mind has allowed me to visit. At the finale, the second book is set up exceptionally well. It hit me yesterday that because I have an advanced copy of this, that I have to wait even longer for the second book. That is quite upsetting. When it is released officially I will buy this as it deserves a prime of place on my literal favourite bookshelf in my library. This tale was so extraordinary in my mind that I am questioning my previous ratings of other similar stories in this genre. So, note to authors; if I take a star or two off your rating then it is Mark Lawrence's fault, not mine.
James Tivendale, 9.4/10

10/10 A master storyteller who can craft amazing worlds and fill them with awesome characters

Reviews by and James Tivendale

4 positive reader review(s) for Red Sister

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

Mark Lawrence biography

Mark Lawrence interview

Red Sister reader reviews

from United States

I made the mistake of reading Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers while reading Red Sister by Mark Lawrence. They both have a storyline with religious sisters training young girl. I was relatively unimpressed by the lack of plot development in Red Sister. Since it starts being told about an future event, then sends the reader back in time, there wasn't as much explanation about how the beginning came to be in the rest of the book. As a reader, this left me unfulfilled. I assume any sequels will be an explanation of the first book's beginning. I guess this has the essence of The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss with writing techniques leading to a larger story. I do like the originality of "the path," but I cannot get behind never understanding why the beginning came to be by the end of the book. This was the main reason I confused Grave Mercy with Red Sister's plot. One has a definitive plot, the other left me scratching my head as to where the rest of the story was, so I merged them together. I put this at a 7 due to relatively good writing for the author and imagination for the fantasy aspect.
7/10 ()

from South Africa

There are no words to describe this book. It is absolutely one of my favourites. Red Sister was so beautifully written and Nona, the main character, is raw and real. I like that the characters have flaws and aren't perfect. I read a lot of books in this same genre, but never have I ever read a book like Red Sister. Many of the horrible truths of humanity are seen in this book and Nona's journey throughout the novel is inspiring. We watch Nona grow as a person and we almost grow along with her. I love the fact that this novel has no romantic relationships even though the main character is female. Nona Grey is truly a strong female lead character. And Mark Lawrence is truly a talented and excellent writer.
10/10 ()

from United States

Really loved this book. First book I have read by Mark Lawrence and easy to see why so many people like his books. Red Sister had plenty of action to keep u riveted and waiting for more. Loved the idea of lethal nuns. The characters were well defined and easy imagine as being real people. The protagonist of this book was a different twist. Young farm girl with magical talents that left her not sure of who she really is. Hate to think I have to wait till 4/2018 for book two. Total thumbs up for Red Sister!!
9/10 ()

from UK

Excellent book, cannot recommend it enough. The reason it only had a 9 rating is that I thought some of the characters 'talents' weren't explained In enough detail, Yisht and her 'rock forging' for example. I was fully expecting another story set in the world of jorg and jalan and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be, if not a different world, then a different time to those two. I was thoroughly gripped by the story from beginning to end. The way he describes 'the path' makes you think you can concentrate and reach it yourself, The imagination of Lawrence is truly wondrous I look forward to the next instalment.
9/10 ()

8.9/10 from 5 reviews

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