"I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin" At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.
If that short description whetted my appetite for this book, the opening paragraph of the prologue caught me hook, line and sinker,
'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.'
Red Sister follows the tribulations of Nona Grey, a small peasant girl with dark and dangerous secrets. Nona has been bought by Giljohn, the child-taker. Abeth is a harsh world, much of it now covered in ice, its people are forced to live in a narrow corridor. With little space and a climate that makes crop growing near to impossible, starving families are often forced to sell their children. We learn of this in flashback form as Nona remembers the events that have led her to the gallows, convicted of murder. She has been rescued from execution by Abbess Glass and brought to the Convent of Sweet Mercy but why would a nun save her, and is she really safe now? The answer to that latter question is quickly apparent, Nona has powerful enemies and she will need to learn not just the skills taught at Sweet Mercy; she will also need also understand and come to terms with who is she is, and what she is capable of, if she is going to survive.
Much of Red Sister follows Nona's education alongside the other novices at the convent. Novices move through four classes on their way to receiving their holy orders, classes are named after the four orders of nun. At just eight, Nona joins Red Class and we learn that there are four paths nuns eventually follow - a Bride of the Ancestor (Holy Sister) honours the Ancestor and maintains the faith; a Martial Sister (Red Sister) is skilled in armed and unarmed combat; a Sister of Discretion (Grey Sister) is skilled in espionage, stealth and poisons,and a Mystic Sister (Holy Witch) can walk the Path and manipulate threads. Novices quickly learn which path they are likely to follow and this is generally decided by whether they show any sign of bearing the distinguishing features of the four tribes the people of Abeth are descended from. The tribes who came found an unforgiving world even before the ice spread and were forced to mix their blood to breed people who could survive. Their descendants may still display touches or more obvious signs of the attributes that differentiate them. The tribes are described as:
Gerant - distinguished by their great size
Hunska - distinguished by their speed. A dark-haired, dark-eyed people
Marjal - distinguished by their ability to tap into the lesser magics.
Quantal - distinguished by their ability to walk the Path and work greater magics.
A book set in a school that teaches magic, with four categories pupils can be determined by, with the principal character a child from a difficult background will inevitably be compared to Harry Potter. While I think this book will appeal to Potterheads it's a much darker and bleaker book, not something I'd recommend to younger HP fans. This is a brutal world with cruel and violent characters. Nona suffers some horrendous attacks, without giving anything away there is one particular scene that is really quite difficult to read. Nona is a remarkable lead character, she is bright - she often seems much older than her years but her hard life has doubtless caused her to grow up fast - skillful, brave and principled. She is also impetuous, finds in hard to trust people and is frequently an unreliable narrator. Her vulnerability and need for acceptance means she is desperate for friends and must endure some hard lessons about truth and trust. There are several other strong characters in the book, her friends are diverse and believable, often with their own secrets, the nuns are a fascinating bunch and far removed from the pious expectations we have of holy sisters. That one (my favourite) is nicknamed the Poisoner, should be enough of a hint that these are nuanced characters. Their enemies are, in various ways, terrifying. Whether its a deranged High Priest, a vengeful rich man or a warrior able to take on and beat several attackers at the same time, the tension and danger is palpable.
So superb characterisation then, but Red Sister is also beautifully written, This is a world brought vividly to life, visceral, menacing and thrilling. There's always a risk with the first in a series that too much world building goes on at the expense of an exciting plot but here the balance is perfect, there is much to look forward to with the next instalment but this is a gripping and immersive story from the very start. There are twists and turns, a breathtaking conclusion and an epilogue that has me desperate for book two! I highly recommend this book, if you're looking for a new fantasy series then look no further, this should hit the spot.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for my unbiased review.
Red Sister is published in the UK by Harper Voyager.
About the author
Mark Lawrence is married with four children, one of whom is severely disabled. His day job is as a research scientist focused on various rather intractable problems in the field of artificial intelligence. He has held secret level clearance with both US and UK governments. At one point he was qualified to say ‘this isn’t rocket science … oh wait, it actually is’.
Between work and caring for his disabled child, Mark spends his time writing, playing computer games, tending an allotment, brewing beer, and avoiding DIY.
You can follow Mark on Twitter as @Mark__Lawrence and his website is at marklawrence.buzz