Every once in a while, you encounter a book so good you start to resent anything that interrupts your reading. Sleeping, working, seeing friends or family – all of these become barriers to this other world, this place you’d really rather be right now. Red Sister is a book like that. In fact, it might be the best book I’ve read in a long time.
Red Sister is that particular sort of story where it’s made fairly clear to the reader that the protagonist is destined for greatness – the strongest warrior, the most powerful of mages, an excellent accountant¹. The signs are there, they’re “the chosen one” (or something close to it) but they’re only on the very first steps of their journey, and it’s a long, hard road still to come. I’m always so conflicted about how I want to consume these kinds of stories: torn between wanting the world to hurry up and notice what is right in front of them; wanting the protagonist to realise who they are and start being badass; but also enjoying the journey of discovery.
On an ice planet under a dying sun, life is harsh and childhood is short. Nona Grey, aged 9, has been sent to the gallows to die for murder but is saved by the Abbess Glass of the Sweet Mercy convent. Whisked away to become a novice there, it becomes clear that the convent Nona is destined for something great, or something terrible. At the convent, girls are trained to become living weapons, super-strength, super-speed, destructive power, and the secrets of the shadows.
This book is like some bastard child of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter (with some subtle sci-fi elements in there too). The convent is essentially Hogwarts, if that school took preparing its students to battle ol’ snakenose a lot more seriously. These tweens brew poisons, not potions, learn to fight with fist and blade, and, of course, develop the skilled manipulations and keen understanding of human nature necessary to be a spy. These girls will be assassins and soldiers in service to the Ancestor, and would probably snuff out that silly man Voldemort before he could utter more than a strangled “avad—“.
The book (the first in a planned trilogy) covers the first few years of Nona unusual and brutal education. Her strength is forged in battle after battle, her victories fuelled by rage and sheer refusal to submit to defeat. Nona is more than her destiny, far more than just the bloodline that gives her her skills: she’s a survivor to the core and will never give up, fighting literally tooth and nail to survive. She is also kind, smart, and a loyal friend.
The other novices in Red Sister are pretty cool too, and the friendships that develop over the course of the story are really well-executed. Considering he’s never actually (I assume) been a little girl moving towards puberty, Mark Lawrence does an amazing job of conveying what it feels like to be a girl who’s not quite on the brink of womanhood.
The action scenes are intense, bloody and adrenaline-fuelled. That during some of her most brutal combat Nona is not yet fourteen years old is both terrifying and thrilling. If this is what she can do as a kid, imagine her at the peak of her abilities! She’ll pretty much be a female John Wick, but with added magical abilities.
This book is so strong on so many fronts: characterization, world-building, dialogue, action, suspense, and developing deep emotional connection to Nona, her fellow students, and the nuns who train them. I highly recommend you read Red Sister, but be warned: once you start you’ll be hooked: this beautiful, icy planet with its warrior nuns and machiavellian political intrigue is a place you’ll want to stay.
¹ If you haven’t read The Traitor Baru Cormorant yet, you should do so right away.
Provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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