by Mark Lawrence
Published April 4, 2017
From Goodreads: 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.
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 teenage-girl-assassin theme feels likes it’s all over the place these days. Or it might just be because a few books get all the press, making it feel like it’s all over. I don’t know. I haven’t read All The Books, so maybe it’s a new trope that I’m only brushing the edges of.
I had much higher hopes for Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister than I had for Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass since I’ve heard nothing but good things about Lawrence’s books.
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.”
– Mark Lawrence, Red Sister
An opening line like that carries with it a promise of a strange story. Who would want to kill a nun, and why would you need an army to do so? The nuns of this story, of course, are not the sort we would think of today, in crisp black and white habits. The sisters of the Sweet Mercy Convent are trained as warriors, whether with weapons or with magic, and it truly takes an army to bring one of them down.
The nuns’ training takes ten years to complete, and it is at the beginning of this process that we meet Nona Grey, one of the newest and certainly the bloodiest novice at this peculiar convent. Nona has secrets. A lot of them. They’re what took her from her home, nearly to the gallows, and finally to the relative safety of the Sweet Mercy Convent.
I say ‘relative safety’, because, in spite of the Sisters’ abilities, danger swirls around the nuns and their students. From day one, the girls’ lives are in danger while the abbess plays a risky political game. Through all this, Nona must learn who to trust– and when.
It should be disturbing to read about girls as young as ten learning how to kill people. They’re children, after all, and should be taking lessons about reading and writing, but the world of Abeth and the Corridor in the ice is a brutal one. Their sun is dying, the ice is encroaching, and powerful men don’t care if the target of their vengeance is a skinny little girl. To keep themselves alive, these girls must learn the tricks of their deadly trade. Sending a young girl off to learn the assassin’s trade is obviously not a new thing. In both Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass and Robin LaFevers’s Grave Mercy, the worlds those heroines face are also dark and dangerous. But Mark Lawrence succeeds with Nona where Maas and LaFevers failed with Calaena and Ismae because Nona is a flawed character. She is young and naive, though she thinks she understands the world because her life has been hard. She has trouble making friends, and she has trouble with her lessons. She assumes things about other people that aren’t true, and then she acts on those assumptions- often with terrible consequences. In other words, Nona acts like you would expect a girl to act in her shoes. Lawrence lets his main character act like an idiot and be beaten (and take a beating), then lets her pull herself together and learn from her mistakes. Just like a normal person would.
I think that letting your characters fail is one of the marks of a great writer. It’s easy to fall in love with one of your characters. They start to feel real after a while, and it’s hard to let them be humiliated. Who wants that to happen to their precious creation? But if humiliation (or injury or even death) are what the story demands, then that should happen. I didn’t think Nona was going to die, but there were times where I wasn’t sure she would come out the other side of whatever trouble she found herself in. Or something could have happened to one of the other girls, like Hessa, Ara, or Clera. There was a constant tension– whether it was a childish rivalry for another girl’s attention or a fight to the death– that kept me fully engaged in the story. I hated to put it down and came back to it as soon as I could.
The rest of the elements are expertly handled, as well. The worldbuilding is completed in multiple ways, and the way it is presented feels perfectly natural. Nona, being an uneducated child, must learn about the world she inhabits and so the reader learns along with her. There is the sense that this is a very old world with a complex history, but Lawrence never delves into a hundred generations of begats, nor does he have his teachers drone on about this king or that. The politics are introduced as Nona sees them and while they’re important to the story, they’re often secondary to it. The relationships between the girls drive the events, not some far away Emperor’s pronouncements.
And while I’m mentioning relationships, I’m going to turn back to the characters because the relationships the girls in the Sweet Mercy Convent have are wonderfully realistic. They’re a disparate group of girls with differing skills and strengths, flung together almost at random. They share sleeping quarters, meals, and sometimes clothes, and while this draws many of them into lifelong friendships, it pushes others apart. There are rivalries to match just about anything in Game of Thrones, and hard lessons about friendship and trust.
Another important thing? There is no love interest. There are no love triangles. Nona isn’t some great beauty from the wilderness, just waiting for someone to wash off the dirt and give her a pretty frock to turn her into the pretty, pretty princess of the prince’s dreams. That falls to one of the other girls before the issue of beauty is dropped on the wayside behind their training. The girls don’t have time to stress out over tangled hair and make-up. Nor do they have the energy or inclination to worry about boys. Not that they would have boys to pine over in an all-female convent, but they’re aware of boys, of marriage, and of the things that men and women do together. But there’s no romantic love in this book, only the love between friends, a relationship that is all too often cast aside when a hint of romance enters the picture.
As dark as it can be, Red Sister is an incredible book. It’s plot structure, world-building, characterizations, and writing are hard to beat in the dark fantasy genre. I started reading it a little after midnight on Monday and finished it on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a rare book that is so enthralling that I will spend all my spare time reading it, and Red Sister is one of the few.