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.

NEVERNIGHT by Jay Kristoff

This review originally appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com.

 

If you read the Harry Potter series and thought, “This is a pleasant little story and all, but I just wish everyone at Hogwarts was a blood-thirsty sociopath and the instructors stopped wasting everyone’s time with all these pointless classes and just taught the students how to f— and kill one another.” Then I’ve got two things to say:

Number one, you should probably see a mental health specialist.

Number two, you’re going to love Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight.

Nevernight is the first book in a new trilogy that combines the Hogwarts-style school setting of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books; the Venetian-style city, colorful profanity and quick-witted banter of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards; and the bloody, unflinching spectre of death that make Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence’s novels so captivating.

From the opening sentence, when the unnamed narrator informs us that, “people often shit themselves when they die,” Nevernight is bold and unflinching. Even as Kristoff’s prose brings beauty to his sun-burnt world, his characters’ language is shockingly profane. Teenagers are killed by their instructors, often in gruesome, gore-filled ways. There are unapologetically graphic sex scenes. Any reader who sees a teenage protagonist and believes Nevernight will be a young adult book will be in for a rude surprise.

Of course, for readers who brave these murky waters, it’s a hell of a well-told story.

In a city built on the bones of a dead god, where three suns result in almost perpetual daylight, Mia Corvere is the daughter of an executed traitor. When her mother and brother are arrested, she flees. Alone and frightened, she finds a friend in the city’s darkest shadow and names him Mister Kindly.

Now in her teenage years, Mia knows she needs training to avenge her family and bring down the powerful men who ruined her life. To gain those skills, she goes to the Red Church, where she hopes to become a Blade of the Lady of Blessed Murder. But in a school full of killers, failure means death, and Mia can’t be certain whether the skills she develops are worth the humanity she’s losing along the way.

Mia is the cornerstone of the story, and immediately proves to be a compelling character. Introduced through flashbacks to her childhood in between scenes in which she makes her way to the Red Church, she is someone whose innocence has long since been stripped away. Even before she arrives at the church, Mia has established her credentials as a full-blooded murderess. As one of the opening paragraphs says, “… if the unpleasant realities of bloodshed turn your insides to water, be advised now that the pages in your hands speak to a girl who was to murder as maestros are to music. Who did to happy ever afters what a sawblade does to skin.”

Her constant companion, Mister Kindly, takes the form of a cat and feeds off her fear, allowing Mia to exhibit a form of bravery in the face of her many challenges. For the most part, the not-cat seems completely devoted to Mia, but there are a few moments when its façade slips, and it’s impossible to entirely forget that this creature relies as much on Mia’s fears for sustenance as Mia needs Mister Kindly to keep her nightmares at bay.

Mia’s classmates include Tric, her love interest; Jessamine, whose father died in the rebellion Mia’s father helped lead and would like nothing more than to see Mia killed; Hush, a pale young man who doesn’t speak, largely because all his teeth have been removed; and Ashlinn, a talented thief who becomes the closest thing Mia has to a friend within the Red Church’s walls.

All the students are instructed in three specialties – weapons, poison and seduction – and the instructors demonstrate little if any regard for their charges’ lives. Throughout the book, the lessons are interspersed with impromptu tests that place all the students’ lives in danger. With each challenge, the students’ numbers dwindle, and to make things worse, someone is killing off members of the class. As if that isn’t enough to build distrust amongst the students, only four will be selected to become Blades.

Kristoff keeps the story interesting throughout, as Mia makes her way to the Red Church, then meets the colorful cast of characters who inhabit the school. No one can be entirely trusted, and even as Mia finds herself feeling compassion toward some of her classmates, the perpetual competition and the inherent cruelty of their business makes it impossible for anyone to truly become friends.

Even as the students develop their skills, becoming stronger, smarter and tougher, Mia finds herself wondering just how much of her humanity she is giving away in return for the tools she needs to avenge her family.

Throughout the book, Kristoff includes footnotes that offer details about historical events, objects and people mentioned within the story. They are extraneous to the story, so readers who don’t enjoy them can simply skip over them without missing too much, but I found them charming and often humorous, helping to flesh out a world that we as readers are just beginning to understand.

At the risk of comparing Nevernight to too many fantasy bestsellers, Kristoff’s writing style reminds me of Patrick Rothfuss, from the variety of names used to introduce Mia in the epilogue – Pale Daughter, Kingmaker, and Crow – to the fluid, lyrical quality to the prose and the whip-smart dialogue that keeps the story moving forward. Kristoff previously wrote The Lotus War, a Japanese steampunk series, and co-authored The Illuminae Files alongside Amie Kaufman. Even having earned the title of “New York Times bestseller,” this is the book that should make him a household name in fantasy circles, right alongside Abercrombie, Lawrence, Lynch and Rothfuss.

The fantasy genre has seen plenty of novels about assassins through the years, but Nevernight may set a whole new standard for this well-populated subgenre.