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.
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.
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.
[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?