In 2020 I tried Mark Lawrence’s first trilogy, following a psychotic young man as he tries to reclaim his throne. Or at least that is what I think the plot was, because the book really didn’t work for me. I don’t mind brutality in books but living in the mind of an overly dramatic teen while simultaneously trying to believe all his boasts didn’t work for me. Everyone had a friend growing up who exaggerated how bad their life was for attention and that’s what the main character of the first trilogy felt like to me.
Which is awkward, because I’d received Lawrence’s first two trilogies for my birthday, won a signed copy of Red Sister and purchased the Book of Ancestor trilogy twice over trying to get US hardcovers. I was determined to love Red Sister, and the glowing reviews all over Goodreads indicated that I had a good chance.
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…
The characters were my favourite aspect of Red Sister.
Nona Grey starts as a young girl, ostracised in her home village for her heritage and you quickly realise that loneliness will be a large characterising influence on her early life. When Nona makes a friend she instils absolute trust and unwavering faith in that friend no matter what may come down the road. We see her loyalty affect her life in different ways; defending a friend in need to her own detriment, naivety and also building a strong network of friends within the school she arrives at. I felt an immediate connection and sympathy for Nona.
Nona’s connection to the other characters is developed over the course of the book and I found that by the end of Red Sister I was deeply invested in how these relationships turned out.
The plot following Nona as she goes through her first few years at the abbey had all of the traditional aspects of a magic school setting that I have enjoyed before. This time the setting was so different simply due to the type of school. As she is training to be a deadly nun, we see poisoners classes where the students have to be on watch for the teacher’s attempts to poison them and other dangerous scenarios. I loved this plot, especially as the school contained all my favourite characters within that setting. But I would say that book one lost some points with my for how much time we spent in Nona’s past and how quickly the two years of school went by. I would have preferred to have more time in the school setting and do more there, especially if the flashbacks to Nona’s past were interspersed throughout. The book is split into two parts, with the first part covering a lengthy section on how Nona got to the school and her first year and the second part was just the second year. If we had started part one with Nona’s arrival and used flashbacks to develop her character as we went I think the book would have felt more balanced are regards pacing.
The world of Book of the Ancestor is harsh, incredibly cold and fantastic to read about. There weren’t many parts that really focused in on the world building but in the sections that did were really enjoyable to me. I particularly loved when we learnt about how the world had changed to create the incredibly harsh climate present in the book.
Overall this was a really highly rated book for me, coming in at 4.5/5 stars. I can’t wait to get to the next book in the series in October and I’m glad I decided to splurge on the gorgeous American hardback editions. If you’re like me and didn’t enjoy other series by Mark Lawrence I think there is a very good chance that the Book of the Ancestor could work for you.