Easily Mark Lawrence’s best novel yet … RED SISTER by Mark Lawrence

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.

Advertisements

KING OF THORNS by Mark Lawrence

PRINCE OF THORNS, the first book in THE BROKEN EMPIRE, was probably my favorite discovery of 2011. The pace was swift, the action sharp as a knife, the prose subtly effective and the characters hiding unseen depths beneath their violent exteriors.

So it’s high praise indeed that KING OF THORNS is even better than its predecessor.

In the opening book, which I reviewed here, Lawrence chose to tell his story by introducing Jorg at his worst and then providing backstory primarily in the second half of the book. While I admire the tactic, I wonder how many readers Lawrence lost, people who never read to the second half of the book to find that while Jorg may not be a character you want to root for, he’s at least an understandable character.

Of course, I love a good anti-hero — Raistlin Majere, Gerald Tarrant, Nicomo Cosca, anyone? — so Jorg was right up my alley.

In KING OF THORNS, the tale bounces back and forth between the current action, in which an overpowering army prepares to invade the kingdom Jorg won in PRINCE OF THORNS, and four years earlier, when Jorg begins to explore his newly-won territory. It’s easy enough to tell which story thread each chapter addresses, as the chapters are all titled either “Four Years Ago” or “Wedding Day.”

The two storylines work well together and take full advantage of the dynamic world Lawrence has created, one that can host ghosts and dreamwalkers and computers and trolls without feeling like an awkward mash-up.

The secondary characters in the book aren’t given much time, but there are surprisingly likeable characters mixed in amongst the thugs who typically surround Jorg. In the first book, I liked characters such as The Nuban, Gorgoth, Gog and Morgog. In this book, Makin fills a similar role to that of The Nuban, and Gorgoth and Gog are key to the first half of the book. The two main female characters are also interesting. Nonetheless, none of the characters are explored too closely — in fact, Jorg is surprised in this book to learn the Nuban’s name.

Of course, Jorg is a self-centered character, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to be too concerned about his compatriots’ back stories and motivations, but it also takes away some of the impact when members of the band die. At one point, Jorg gets angry and avenges a comrade’s death in bloody fashion, but afterwards he’s asked why he bothered — he never liked that fellow in the first place. Jorg has no answer to this query.

Other characters die with only a passing mention.

It fits, of course, with Jorg’s worldview — he truly doesn’t treasure the lives around him, so why would he stop and weep for the fallen? At times I’d like to see more reaction when one of my favorite characters dies, but that really doesn’t fit with the tone of these books — it’s a violent world with a violent protagonist.

It’s a recipe that makes for a bloody (good) read.

PRINCE OF THORNS by Mark Lawrence

It’s all about the execution.

I always feel awkward trying to summarize the plot to a novel or movie because I always make it sound kind of stupid. Almost everything sounds stupid when you try to break it down to a brief sentence, and anyway, at the end of the day, it’s not the basic story setup that’s going to decide whether a book’s any good or not — it’s how well the author pulls off what they’re trying to do.

To me, that was the big difference between PRINCE OF THORNS and TOME OF THE UNDERGATES. Both books are centered around anti-heroes with the stress on the “anti” and less on the “hero,” and both were highly recommended to me by Fantasy-Faction.com. But while I found the characters in TOME OF THE UNDERGATES annoying, I really enjoyed PRINCE OF THORNS, and liked the way Lawrence changes our perception of Prince Jorg, our main character. Admittedly, Jorg is kind of a ridiculous name for our main protagonist, but once you get past that, the story is awesome. When we first meet Jorg, he’s the brutal leader of a gang of thugs, and as the story progresses he proves several times that he’s fearless, intelligent and as cold and calculating as the very best villains you’ve ever rooted against.

We also learn about Jorg’s past, and each new insight teaches us a little bit about the character and why he is the way he is. By the end of the book, we learned that the rules the story was governed by weren’t the rules we expected, and that there are villains behind the villains.

Lawrence draws strong characters throughout the story, including Makin and the Nuban, and I even found myself liking Rike, who makes me think of a stupider Black Dow from Joe Abercrombie’s books. Jorg emerges as an antihero, a bad guy we can’t help but root for because of the traits I’ve already listed and the sense of humor that pervades the book. That’s where TOME OF THE UNDERGATES swung and missed for me. PRINCE OF THORNS hit it solidly on the barrel.