It’s important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.
That’s the first line of RED SISTER, which has taken its rightful place as my favorite Mark Lawrence novel.
To be honest, it isn’t even close. I liked Lawrence’s previous efforts, but RED SISTER stands out in a way that makes me hope this is the book that introduces every new reader to his works moving forward.
In the second half of RED SISTER, our protagonist Nona is warned that a book is a dangerous journey, and the person who closes a book may not be the same as the one who opened it. It’s an idea that I’ve seen before in other forms, but somehow that line stayed with me, even in a book that is just as quotable as Mark Lawrence’s previous efforts. Not because I changed from the first to last page of RED SISTER, but because this book seemed like a giant step forward for Lawrence, and I can’t help but feel that the author who penned RED SISTER is far more focused, engaging, and capable of reaching new, wider audiences than the man who told Jorg’s story in THE PRINCE OF THORNS.
Ever since THE PRINCE OF THORNS first hit bookshelves, Lawrence has drawn legions of fans with his violent antihero, Jorg, and followed that trilogy’s success with THE RED QUEEN’S WAR trilogy, featuring Jalan Kendeth, a simpering princeling whose laziness and lack of morals made for a very different sort of antihero.
In RED SISTER, Lawrence’s new protagonist is an altogether different character, and not merely because she is female. While she clearly has a dark past, Nona is an easily likeable character, one whom a wider audience can enjoy without feeling guilty. I love the sheer balls of writing a character like Jorg, but writing about a violent, murderous 13-year-old inherently limits the audience your books can attract. Nona, on the other hand, is vulnerable in a way Jorg never was, and her naivety and fierce loyalty to her friends are endearing, even as she develops the skills to kill her enemies in a hundred different ways.
Simply put, I enjoyed Nona’s company far more than that of Jorg or Jalan, even as I appreciated the humor of their warped worldviews.
RED SISTER is just as violent and caustic and humorous and twisted as its predecessors, but it also has more heart thanks to its protagonist. When readers first meet Nona, she is an accused murderer, set to hang in the gallows until a nun from the nearby convent rescues her. But this is no ordinary convent, as you or I would know it. Once at the convent, Nona is enrolled in courses – academics, blades, poisons, and studying the Path.
Alongside her classmates, Nona is taught countless ways to kill in service to the Ancestor, and soon learns that like many of her peers, she is one of those blessed with an exceptional ability – in her case, superhuman quickness. Using these abilities, the novices are transformed into weapons, and challenged in a variety of ways.
For Nona, those challenges include the hatred the royal Tacsis family still holds for her after she escaped murder charges for nearly killing one of their own, and the announcement by one of the nuns that Nona is fated to be The Shield, defending the life of Arabella Jotsis, a fellow novice destined to become The Chosen One. Whether Nona or Arabella actually are fated to be special or were merely named as such to serve the nun’s own ends are never entirely clear.
In many ways, RED SISTER reminds me of Jay Kristoff’s NEVERNIGHT, which probably was my favorite new book of 2016. Like RED SISTER, NEVERNIGHT features a collection of young novices being trained in the arts of assassination, but NEVERNIGHT is actually a darker and more disturbing book than RED SISTER. I certainly look forward to seeing where both authors take their series, and the ways in which their plots diverge in the forthcoming chapters.
If you liked NEVERNIGHT or RED SISTER but haven’t read the other, you’re in for a treat. Their protagonists and worlds are just different enough to make for distinct tales, but they share such similar themes, exceptional worldbuilding, and clever, intelligent writing that I have a hard time imagining someone liking one but not the other.
I may give RED SISTER the edge because I think I enjoy Nona as a protagonist more than Mia Corvere, but the ever-present threat of death for all the characters in NEVERNIGHT constantly had me on the edge of my seat.
Perhaps the advantage lies with Lawrence’s flash forward scenes, which provide us just enough clues to guess what life is like for Nona and her friends after they graduates from the nunnery. RED SISTER is a great beginning; judging by our glimpses into these characters’ future, it’s shaping up to be Lawrence’s masterwork.