“I was born for killing – The gods made me to ruin.” – Nona Grey in Red Sister.
Marking the first novel in a new series, Red Sister by Mark Lawrence blends action, mystery and spiritualism in a fantasy sure to gain fans from the first pages. Mark Lawrence has previously published two trilogies, Broken Empire and the Red Queen’s War, which both followed headstrong young men set in the same world. This time, he’s stepped into unfamiliar territory. Red Sister is set in a world nearing its end, capped by ice wastelands that have reduced the livable area on the planet to a narrow strip. There is vague talk of the people that came before, much like the Builders in the other series, though this is very much it’s own world with its own politics and beliefs. Much of the story takes place within the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where Nona Grey finds herself in training to be a nun.
The world is peopled by four distinct tribes, each with their own traits, whether it being inhumanly fast for short bursts of time or seeing the threads that connect everything on a spiritual level. It is these traits that determine what the novices in the convent specialize in, and it is the blending of these traits that inspires the legend of a Chosen One. There is a good deal of magic and mysticism blended into the rigorous training of the novices.
One cannot review a title like Red Sister, set in a convent of nuns, without mentioning the religious angle. It’s certainly not heavy handed. The religious focus is on the Ancestor (calling on vague memories of people long since gone beneath the ice). There is also the Path, a special connection and source of power for the nuns in the Convent of Sweet Mercy. The Path is incredibly interesting, a sort of otherworldly connection to the nuns higher power. Having said all that, it’s not just learning about the Ancestor that preoccupies the Sisters. They all find their talents in different studies, whether academic or in alchemy. They also train as warriors for their church. This naturally appeals to Nona.
Nona is not like her fellow novices. She has come to them through a series of scarring events, including being sold to the child taker, her purchase by a fighting ring, Nona being slated for execution and then arriving at the convent. She comes to them having experienced few pleasures like consistent mealtimes and hot baths, needing to learn everything from the beginning.
The other novices reach their Path by serenity, and she struggles to reach that level of understanding. During a stressful moment when Nona is being tested, she is told by Sister Pan to find her serenity…and fast. Nona is upset with her for that comment, saying “You’re not helping!” Sister Pan responds, “The world seldom does, girl.” That quote speaks volumes on the war inside Nona between the serenity she’s supposed to feel and the rage she taps into to get the job done. Nona is definitely not an academic type. She’s a warrior.
Things don’t happen the way you expect, and there are plenty of surprises. One of which (spoiler alert) is that the main character is not portrayed as the Chosen One. In addition to that is when a new girl enters the convent and appears to be the natural antagonist for Nona, only to have that turn on its head too. It could have easily fallen into school rivalry territory but this story strives higher than that easy target.
Lawrence is very good at holding the cards close to his chest. Each one of his novel’s endings has a way of opening curtains, revealing something that was always there but hidden. Nona’s story is no different. Using a close 3rd person point of view and an unreliable narrator, Lawrence draws out Nona’s journey and makes it come full circle only at the very end. For example, there are key moments in Nona’s early childhood that are only fully told at the end, when Nona embraces who she is and taps into her destructive potential.
Nona is not some nun studious in prayer. She’s a wild card, a deadly force of nature, and an endearingly strong friend. It’s a beautiful marriage of that anger and love that makes Nona so wonderful. There are layers to this girl that can only be revealed a piece at a time throughout the story, but the conclusion is all the more satisfying because of it. I just can’t wait to see where her path leads next.