Series: Book of the Ancestor #1
Publisher: Ace (April 4, 2017)
Length: 432 pages
My Rating: 2.5 stars
Red Sister is a novel which has (rightly so, in my opinion) been dubbed the new Harry Potter for young adults. And, without a doubt, it follows the familiar pattern of children growing up and being trained by wise teachers at a specialized school for youth; the narrative fully embracing the whole coming-of-age and Chosen One mythos for good measure. Our main character’s unfortunate past and current travails chronicled in excruciating detail: every friendship, every enemy, every struggle, every triumph, every doubt, every hope. Mark Lawrence taking great pains to create a close knit community of young and old women bound together by their order and their emotional ties; massive page time devoted to the tough training and wise teachings the characters receive. And while that probably sounds like sugar coated candy for Harry Potter lovers, it left me more than a little disappointed.
The tale is told through the eyes of Nona, a young girl, who is waiting her turn for the gallows after committing the terrible crime of saving her friend from a violent man; a man whose father just happened to be one of the most powerful people in the kingdom. All that rescues Nona from death the timely intervention of a nun from the Covenant of Sweet Mercy: a monastery devoted to training women to be the most feared warriors in the world.
Once in her new home, Nona quickly meets and befriends a host of girls her own age; people whom she grows to care about in different ways. Each of them sharing their hopes, dreams and fears to one another as they attempt to survive the brutal training of their teachers; women who will do anything to train their pupils – even poison them when necessary. But while Nona attempts to lose herself and her past in the confines of the convent, her past will not leave her be; powerful people bent on revenge, not only against her but against the order itself and the nuns who run it. Much of this hate driven by an ancient prophecy and the social, political, and ecological events transpiring in the world outside.
Just as with The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War, world building is a real strength of this narrative; Mark Lawrence outdoing himself with a unique, compelling setting for his characters to play in. Nona’s world quickly becoming an intriguing place, filled with ancient mysterious, ominous prophecies, environmental issues, and technological abnormalities, which are only loosely explained; all of it blending together to create a panoply of lands and people which a reader will desperately wish to explore and learn more about. This fact made even more impressive when you realize the whole book basically takes place inside the walls of a convent with only the character’s conversations and brief flashbacks and flashforwards to future events being used to accomplish all this.
Populating this fantasy world is a cast of characters cut in the cloth of realism. Our main protagonist, Nona, a more normal person than prior Mark Lawrence leads. No sociopath princes to be found here. No cowardly heroes either. Rather, we have a girl with no family, no future, and no real idea who or what she wishes to become. A youth who grows and matures before a reader’s eyes, guiding by strong women; many of whom are involved in mature same sex relationships. (These relationships normal and matter-of-fact affairs.) Nona slowly revealing her troubled past, sharing her feelings, admitting her fears, and learning the cost and worth of real friendship. Her and her young companions slow march toward maturity drawing you into their demanding life of constant training.
And so we come to my main difficulty with Red Sister: the training. Once Nona arrives at the convent, nearly every moment is consumed by training. We learn about the different blood lines the girls come from – each with their own unique abilities hardwired into their genes; the “levels” each novice must go through during their training; we experience the numerous classes with the unique teachers – some friends and some foes; the “Paths” these youths have one day choose from when they finally become nuns. Nona’s martial education conservatively taking up around 75% of the narrative. Which might not be a bad thing if you love Harry Potter-like books or just really love endless training sessions. Unfortunately, I’m not a Potterhead and a little training is more than enough for my tastes, so the bulk of this novel was a horrendous chore for me to get through.
I know, I know, every fantasy reviewer out there seems to adore Red Sister. Five star ratings everywhere one looks. And I certainly understand why some readers would adore this story. But, on this occasion, I can’t jump on the bandwagon. For me, this novel was an okay read. Only reaching 2.5 stars due to the great ending. So while I know people will vehemently disagree with me about Red Sister, I’m perfectly okay with my opinion being in the minority here, because the bulk of the narrative left me cold. No, the book wasn’t bad at all, mainly because Mark Lawrence can make a discussion about menstrual cycles seem interesting (Yes, there is exactly this type of discussion in Red Sister.), but it just did not read with the same fire, same passion, same energy as other Mark Lawrence stories. Hence, the low star rating.
I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.