I have received the arc of Red Sister by Mark Lawrence about one year ago, a gesture that I appreciated so much and I apologize for the delay in posting this review; the opinions expressed in here are my own.
“There’s a boundary between what lives and what does not. It runs a boundary between what loves and what does not. It runs through all things, and around them. It’s a path that is hard to follow but each step taken is a holy one. When you walk the Path you approach the divine. The Path flows from the Ancestor and the Ancestor waits at the end of it. At the end of all thing.
We are mortals though. We are flawed. Poor vessels for divinity. Each step is harder than the last, the Path twists and turns, it is narrow and in motion, the power that gives is … difficult to contain. Sooner rather than later everyone slips from the Path no matter what their heart desires, no matter how pure their fate.”
Imagine a convent where nuns take in (young) girls to educate them hoping they will join the convent. Now, imagine it with a twist: The sisters do not only practice the arts of the soul (and healing of it); some of them are trained to become assassins, master assassins. Incredibly sharp tools as deadly as they can be, with uncanny abilities to reach where others cannot.
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure the you bring an army of sufficient size.”
Now, add a bit of magic; specifically, imagine that the world is built on only four potential traits, based on four tribes: (i) Gerant – the (gigantic) size gives you away; (ii) Hunska – you are extremely quick; you are also dark-haired and dark-eyed; (iii) Marjal – you can do lesser magic; and (iv) Quantal, you can walk the Path and do greater magic. To possess all of them would make a person The Chosen One; and, in general, the more traits one possesses – in the purest form – the more powerful the individual is.
The magic system does not appear particularly complicated on paper; I would state that the world of the Red Queen’s War is more complex than this (at least for what transpired in book one of The Book of the Ancestor) yet it is delivered with vivid imagery and uncanny skills in describing fights and wielding abilities. In addition, the magic system is spiced up by allowing an individual to have a combination of all the four skills above. Well construed and thought-through; and it shows in the story, the plot is clearly well developed around these abilities. Possibly, this is one of the expected standards for Mark Lawrence’s stories: Having a clear vision, no loose threads and consistency in applying the skills without clashing.
The book is told from Nona’s point of view; I would almost state that it’s Mark Lawrence’s trademark: The ability to deliver an extremely powerful story even when the point of view is only one, even when the story is mostly kept in the dark and slowly unveiled.
The plot is never boring. Not only I felt like getting to know the characters more and more through the eyes of Nona (who is an extremely intriguing character herself) but also the action is there pretty much at all times. In all fairness, action does not equal to a great story but the right level of action at the right time is a difficult balance to strike and I feel that Mark Lawrence is extremely capable in this respect. One of the most interesting facts about this plot, in my opinion, is that this is hardly a linear story; there are many side stories, opening new chapters and small developments to discuss and introduce characters and their interaction, that make the world and, especially, the cast of characters so magnetic.
The characters are also fascinating. The convent of Sweet Mary presents extremely deep characters, from abbess Glass to sister Pan. Abbess Glass might be one of my favorite mentors in fantasy. Strong, witty, brains working at full power at all times, willing to risk it all; but also an incredibly manipulative as well.
Let me quickly introduce a couple of characters and what I love about them.
Nona – strong and detached young lady. She has an innate sense of justice, of what is right and wrong. Difficult to connect with people for her history. It also appears that she always have someone who is her enemy, some justified (for instance Raymel) some not justified (Ara). Her ability to reconsider the skills of the opponents is also uncanny. As is her stubbornness and resilience. She also selflessly helps her friends, being friendship a bond Nona barely understands (especially at the beginning of the story) and dedicates herself fully to it. Friendship is not given lightly. The best sentence to describe her, it’s a quote from the same Nona: “I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.”
Quite frankly, Mark Lawrence delivers one of the best female lead characters in fantasy. I am impressed by the amount of authors that are able to portray characters so well (Django Wexler is the best in this with Winter, yet Nona quickly won my heart).
Hessa – handicapped yet powerful, brave and independent; she is instrumental in the development of Nona as an individual and crucial for Nona to understand how others behave. Ultimately, Hessa is the most loyal and unconditional friend Nona has; which Nona appreciates since the very beginning.
Arabella – the strength that she emanates with her presence is breathe taking. The relationship with Nona is strong and the development of the relationship is one of the best aspects of this book.
Tacsis family – Raymel specifically is an incredibly powerful and interesting enemy that goes beyond the confines of the training grounds. And an influential (and rich) family behind an absolute psycho!
In short, this is a beautiful story, filled with powerful characters, strong personalities and bonds that are build and bonds that are painfully broken. A story of redemption and mystery, a clash of wills and enemies that are hiding in the dark. Just a great start to a brand new series by Mark Lawrence. Well done, sir.
Let me also tell you that Grey Sister is about to be released (April 3rd in Europe, if I read the information correctly online) and let me tell you that I have been in a hype mode ever since I re-read Red Sister.