Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence has been one of the biggest names in Fantasy for a while, so it was well past time I got round to reading him. I’ve come close a couple of times, even buying his books for other people with the intention to borrow them when they had finished with them (what? You don’t do that?), but for various reasons they didn’t work out until I picked up my own copy of Red Sister. I’m not a prolific reader, but there’s no doubt that this book shot to to the top of my ToBeRead pile because of this man’s inexplicable generosity in support of indie fantasy writers through the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) competition that he founded.

Not having read his stuff before, I had few expectations, though those who follow Fantasy will know that Mark is strongly linked to the Grimdark subgenre. As the name suggests, this is associated with adult themes, dark or flawed characters and a depressing/realistic/cynical (depending on your point of view) world view. So before I started reading, I was interested to find out how dark things would get. And…I was a little surprised.

 

Characters

Lawrence is known for his single character led writing and Red Sister is no exception. Front and centre we have Nona, a young (9?) girl raised in poverty and ignorance but claimed by the Sweet Mercy Convent due to the potential of the powers she exhibits. The story of a child with magic powers is hardly a new one in Fantasy and it’s easy for the reader to settle in to a familiar journey. Nona herself is great company, Lawrence mostly succeeds in looking at the world with a child’s eyes and this child is brave and admirable as perhaps only children can be. I find it hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t warm to her. And this was one reason for surprise – this is surely a departure from Lawrence’s Grimdark roots, making it a more mainstream title. I’m not sure that Nona displays a serious character flaw, does anything reprehensible or is faced with a decision where she doesn’t automatically take the heroic path. Maybe this is because she is a child, maybe it’s because she’s a girl. Maybe these tough choices come in the later books. But for now, she is simply likeable. Nona doesn’t like herself, this is true. The nature of her powers means that she considers herself a monster, in fact. But the reader doesn’t.

The supporting cast is largely made up of the students and teachers at Sweet Mercy Convent. She makes friends here but also has enemies, mostly outside the safety of the Convent. It’s mostly a female cast, which makes the story interesting and distinctive at times. But for me, it didn’t always make it distinctive enough. Two words loomed large while reading this. Harry Potter. It was hard not to compare. ‘Abbess Glass is Dumbledore’, ‘Sister Apple is Snape’ my brain kept telling me. And this is totally unfair, because the characters were well drawn and not copies by any means. But there it is nonetheless. If you want a Grimdark Harry Potter, of course, then you’re in heaven right now.

 

Worldbuilding

The world of Abeth has some interesting sci-fi elements. Four races arrived here, by spaceship. Each race had certain powers – one giants (strength), two magic, one speed (this race is called hunska). These powers have largely died out amongst humans, but some people have retained them in smaller or greater measure – and, in effect, this makes such characters magical. Nona, we soon realise, has hunska powers. Some people may even have more than one of these 4 powers, making them extra special. All this is fine, and for those who like an explanation for magic in fantasy, this one is satisfying and has its own logic and rules. It means that the Convent can offer different classes to suit these different abilities.

Abeth is also distinctive because it exists in a solar system where the sun is dying. Huge walls of ice have enclosed most of the planet. All that is left is a thin corridor in the middle, where the ‘Focus’ moon passes and heats the terrain enough to keep the ice at bay. It’s an interesting idea and by the end of the book starts to drive the plot, presumably taking an even bigger role in the sequels. On the other hand, despite this crisis the parts of Abeth we see are surprisingly ordered. The kind of dystopian chaos one would assume a dying sun would engender happened a long time ago, turning the technological clock backwards, but humans have managed to come through fairly civilised. There is an Empire with currency, a prison system and all the other trappings of civilisation. There are convents and academic institutions and a universal church. It’s a familiar fantasy world despite the unique setting.

 

Plot

[Reviewer’s Disclaimer: I have spent many years as a teacher and this may have affected the following section of this review]

Red Sister is a Coming of Age story set in a school/convent. When I realised this my reaction was ‘meh’. And this is purely personal. But these stories are so dominant in literature right now, plus they are not really my thing anyway, that I struggle to get excited by them. Children’s/teen books, whether fantasy or otherwise, are dominated by the school setting. And in Fantasy, it’s not just Harry Potter. Most books that I have read recently and reviewed here follow this format. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss has a magic school at is heart. Blood Song by Anthony Ryan has a military type school. I understand the appeal and these books are incredibly popular. But I hanker after something different.

Otherwise, the plot chugs along well and there is a neat climax of themes at the end while leaving room for Book Two. Lawrence knows what he is doing and is in full control of the story from beginning to end.

 

Overall, this is a great book with no weaknesses that looks set to develop into a great series. The sequel, Grey Sister, has now hit the stores. I will be reading on, there’s no doubt about that. Now, how do I get my hands on that copy of Prince of Thorns that I bought myse…-cough- that I bought someone as a gift?

 

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

So, finally got round to reading this debut by one of the big names in modern fantasy. The Name of the Wind regularly tops the lists of the best fantasy books of the 21st century. That’s a blessing and a curse. When I got round to reading it, I was expecting something pretty exceptional.

 

Characters

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me

 

Kvothe is the main character of this book, of that there is no doubt. Many fans have fallen in love with him and it’s easy to see why. We are introduced to the red haired Kote as a simple innkeeper. It soon emerges, however, that he has been much more than that. A Chronicler arrives, looking for the famous Kvothe. Kote begins to tell his story to a small audience and we are transported back in time to when he was called Kvothe, as a young boy. Kvothe’s early years, up to 15 or 16, are the centre of the story. He is very young, but extremely talented: a musician; magician, of sorts; brave; attractive to the ladies; intelligent, since he goes to university at a remarkably young age. Well hey, this is fantasy. Many people would like to be Kvothe. At times, however, I found his perfection to be a little annoying. Nonetheless, his trials and tribulations make you root for him to succeed.

The book features a host of supporting characters: his parents; his first teacher, Abenthy; various other masters at the University; friends; his love interest, Denna; Ambrose, his antagonist at the University; Bast, his assistant in the frame story. And many more I could name. But all of these characters are kept at arm’s length, to an extent, to allow Kvothe to be centre stage. Many, such as Denna and Bast, are deliberately mysterious. Overall they are interesting, with hints as to their future role in the story, but after 660 odd pages we still don’t know them that well.

 

Worldbuilding

As with the characters, the world that Rothfuss gives us hints of much more to come in later books. In this novel there is still a sense of mystery about what kind of world we are dealing with. We are introduced to a pseudo-scientific magic system, called Sympathy, which explains how people can perform ‘magic’. This makes it something that can be studied, in a multi-disciplinary kind of way, at the University. Thus, you can have natural ability and develop it through your studies. There are restrictions on students using this magic outside the University. All of this is easy for the reader to grasp and accept, being not so different from Hogwarts after all. We are only given tantalising glimpses of other aspects, however. We know that there are non-human creatures about, but this is left vague.

The world Kvothe inhabits is lovingly created at the micro level. There are two key settings: first the city of Tarbean; second the University with the associated cultural hub of Imre. These locations are so well described that you get immersed in the environment in which Kvothe is trying to make his way. Details such as the currency, the buildings and inhabitants are rich and believable. At the more macro level, there is less. Most of the story is set in the Commonwealth, but this is a vague entity. The towns and cities seem to be, to all intents and purposes, self-governing, but even here there are no discernible political leaders. Ambrose is a member of the nobility, who we are told are rich and powerful, but there is little sign of their influence. Again, this may be fleshed out more in later books, but I was left with little understanding of how this world ‘works’.

 

Style

Rothfuss is a great writer and this is surely key to his popularity. He deals with a long and complex story effortlessly and his descriptive writing is lush without being heavy. He has produced a coming-of-age story that can be enjoyed by any reader, not just fantasy fans.

 

Plot

This is a story that takes its sweet time. Kvothe is given pages and pages in which to grow. Not so much has happened by the time we get to the end, it has to be said. The evil Chandrian, whom Kvothe is trying to uncover, remain as mysterious as they are at the beginning; as does the girl he wants. Kvothe’s spell at the University is not yet at an end. That’s not to say that we haven’t been taken on a journey. But it seems there is a lot of work left for the second book to do.

 

Conclusion

This is a great read by an author with a mature and light touch, dealing with familiar themes. As I say, it rises above the genre, in a similar way to the Harry Potter series. It seems ideal for fans of Hogwarts who are ready to move on to a more adult fantasy setting. Finally, it promises much for the rest of the series. The second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, is already out and, so I’ve heard, even longer!