Review: ‘Red Sister’ by Mark Lawrence

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.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…

Date finished: 14 December 2018
Publisher: Ace
Series: Book of the Ancestor, #1
ISBN: 9781101988855


Despite my deep adoration for all things dark fantasy, I hadn’t read any of Mark Lawrence’s other novels before picking up Red Sister. I might be in the vast minority in that regard. But honestly, I couldn’t be more pleased.

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.

Red Sister is everything I look for when I walk into the fantasy section. It’s gritty, gripping and gloriously daring, with a kickass all-female cast driving the action. At the center of it all is Nona Grey, only eight at the novel’s opening but with blood already drying underneath her fingernails.

For a child shadowed by death, Nona is crafted with a surprising depth of character and brightness of spirit, which makes her perspective all the more engrossing. She is at once jaded and curious, snarky and genuine, guarded and wryly adventurous. Lawrence expertly weaves her voice into the third-person narrative, making the reader witness to the uncomfortable truths of the world that she must uncover in her training at Sweet Mercy. Yet there is a level of detachment that adds a perfect dose of intrigue to her story, deepened by the mysteries of her past and the flashing glimpses of her future.

And the deadly nuns at the Convent of Sweet Mercy are no less enthralling, each one no less carefully designed than Nona. Even the most peripheral of characters feel human – almost startlingly so – as though they could walk straight off the page. Lawrence has an excellent natural talent for evoking strong emotion in his readers, particularly through the interactions of his characters. My love of Sisters Apple, Kettle and Tallow was matched only by my growing hatred of Nona’s enemies, and the fury I experienced on her behalf.

Of course, those deep – almost instinctive – emotional reactions to characters only work to enhance what is already a completely enthralling story with enough action and adventure to make my head spin. There was not a moment of boredom in all the 400-odd pages, let alone a second I could spare to think of anything else at the rare points I had to put the book down (for survival purposes). Red Sister is captivating, in every sense of the word. It may just be perfect.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended to: Feminist fantasy fans.

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