In his new novel, Mark Lawrence steps away from a central male character which dominated his last two trilogies, and instead focuses on a cast almost entirely filled with women. And, to me, it’s his best book yet.
Red Sister follows the journey of Nona, a girl who finds herself unexpectedly rescued from the gallows by the Abbess from the Ancestor’s Convent of Sweet Mercy. She is brought from a world of beatings and brutality into a realm which in its own way is equally violent, but has style and justice within it as well.
The beginning of the novel is a bit choppy. We start with a prologue, then chapter 1 is from the point of view of a character to whom we never return, then chapter 2 is Nona’s rescue and chapter 3 harks back to a piece of back story. Normally such rambling starts would instantly put me off, but Lawrence’s characters draw you in. I never had much love for Jorg in the Prince of Thorns, but I instantly fell in love with Nona and her companions, so I didn’t mind the narrative jumping about to tell her story properly.
To sum up the essence of this book, I would say it is Harry Potter for an adult generation. There are plenty of parallels to be drawn: the teaching institution as a setting; the band of diverse friends who fall in and out of friendship; the question of the chosen one; and the way that many of the challenges the characters meet are in the form of tests run by the institution, some of which go horribly, dangerously wrong. There is even Mistress Shade, who runs the poison classes and will test out new concoctions on the first years. At one point, Nona is obliged to break into Mistress Shade’s stores to steal some poison. If that isn’t reminiscent of Professor Snape, then I don’t know what is.
The pacing in this book is very good. In the first two hundred pages, the threats are balanced with everyday tasks and lessons, but because those tasks and lessons are novel and interesting, there is never a dull moment. You really get drawn into the convent’s world. We leave part one with a subtle revelation, but as we start part two, everything is thrown into confusion again. Lawrence plans his reveals well, leaving just enough intrigue to keep you reading on but revealing enough secrets to keep you satisfied. In addition, the threats take on various different levels: classmates; Yisht; Tacsis and the Emperor; the war; or the ice. By alternating between them, there is always something valid for the protagonists to be tackling or worrying about, without any of the threats seeming to lose their efficacy by overuse.
Lawrence’s description of the world is also very detailed. Take for example “the Vinery Stair, a longer descent to the plains but less treacherous than the Seren Way, and despite its name, stairless.” It’s little details like that which bring the world alive. Lawrence has also put a good deal of thought into the religion and magic of his world. He weaves in the necessary information with an adept style that was very evident in his Prince of Thorns trilogy.
At the beginning of the Red Sister appears an author’s note which gives you a kind of “fact sheet” and glossary to help you understand the world within the book. I must admit that I found it difficult to keep track of some of the characters, especially when the Nuns are given several names. For example, Mistress Shade is actually Sister Apple but is also known as the Poisoner and is a Grey Sister. I didn’t like to keep flicking back to the front of the book to check who was who and which bloodline had which characteristics as, for me, that rather breaks the spell of the narrative. As a result, there were times when I did become a bit muddled, but that didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book at all. After all, anyone who’s read George RR Martin’s tomes with their epic cast of characters will be well-used to not allowing a little confusion over characters get in the way of a good story.
It is refreshing to read a fantasy book which is so wholly focussed on female characters, and one which gives them very creative and proactive roles. I really hope Red Sister garners the interest of Lawrence’s previous work, as this looks set to be a thrilling and, above all, fun series.