Across six novels set in the same brutal, ruthless post-apocalyptic fantasy world, Mark Lawrence proved himself to be a master of darkness, creating works so unrelentingly vicious, they approached a kind of genius comic absurdity—even as they rewrote the rules of what fantasy can do via fearless storytelling, unforgettable characters, and show-stopping worldbuilding. His latest book, Red Sister, launches a new series, but remains signature Lawrence: fiendishly clever, bloody, bloody brilliant.
Just before she is to be hanged, a 9-year-old girl named Nona is whisked away from the prison gallows and into the safety of the Convent of Sweet Mercy by Abbess Glass (if your book begins with a child about to be executed, you might be reading a Mark Lawrence novel). Wrongly accused of murdering a prominent citizen, Nona still feels the vengeful reach of the powerful family of the deceased, even from within the isolated mountain convent. But if they come for her, she’ll be ready: the sisters of the Convent of Sweet Mercy train their charges in subjects such as history, science, and in the art of death. There are four paths a novice in the convent might find themselves on, based on their heritage’s natural abilities, but for a Red Sister, there is only one path, one of blood. “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure you bring an army of sufficient size.” Now that’s an opening line.
Nona knows little of the machinations of those in power, and shows little understanding for the inner workings of people. Learning life lessons through the harshest experiences, Nona yet reveals strength beyond anything the nuns of Sweet Mercy have encountered before. The story speeds along as the girl learns and grows, both as a person and as a fighter, a future Red Sister, as Lawrence builds a world around her, and arranges the forces that will shape her destiny like pieces on a chessboard. There are factions at play we only glimpse, but can still feel lurking in the shadows, leaving us wondering what else the author has tucked away as he builds an epic that will play out across multiple books. In this installment alone we see multiple schemes being engineered as characters double- and triple-cross one another, such that we are never really sure who Nona can trust. Who is acting in their own interests versus serving the emperor’s? Who is playing a feint, unwilling to reveal a deeper game underway?
Mark Lawrence creates some of the savviest characters I’ve encountered in recent fantasy. Until the very last pages, I wasn’t sure how the game would end, and it made the reading experience so enjoyable. Abbess Glass is a truly magnificent player, with a poker face that would clean-up in Las Vegas. Nona’s vulnerability and inner strength carry the narrative forward with such tenacity, the story never misses a beat. This book is crowded with women who are skillful, powerful, tenacious, lethal; they are its beating heart. From Sister Apple to Sister Wheel, from mages and warlocks, to priests and paid fighters, Lawrence gives us characters with nuance and depth, characters we come to love and loathe.
This is a world of such intrigue, I was kept up reading late into the night, rooting for Nona, second-guessing my assumptions, wondering who was telling the truth, who was scheming against whom, and when blades would be drawn. Red Sister is a breathless read and a powerful start to a new series, with yet more blood waiting to wet a Sister’s blade.