Edit [June 2020]: After seeing Mark Lawrence’s sexist behavior and comments on the internet and his treatment of reviewers who don’t like his books or dislike his treatment of female characters – and let’s not even mention the Bury Your Gays that happens later in the series – I can’t recommend this book anymore.
Red Sister was one of my favorite books of 2017, and it’s one of my favorite adult fantasy books ever. Not only the premise is wonderful – a girl is training in a convent of magical assassin nuns? – but everything about this book stood out to me. The friendships, rivalries and group dynamics, the worldbuilding, the politics, the magic system, the writing, and many other things.
But without a doubt, what truly makes this book work is Nona.
Nona is a child, Nona is a murderer, but more than anything, Nona is a liar. She’s not untrustworthy because she betrays her friends, she’s just very secretive, always hiding something to use it at the right moment, so that it can’t be used against her. She’s determined and unusually loyal, for a liar.
She’s also canonically bisexual (she says, at some point, that she has had a crush on two other nuns and a boy she knew from before the convent), which it’s something I really appreciated – it always feels like wasted potential when a book whose cast is 85% women is completely straight. And here we have a bi main character and two side f/f couples! (I’m talking about Kettle/Apple and Alata/Leeni)
I loved reading about the convent of Sweet Mercy. I love school settings, and the convent felt exactly like that; Red Sister would be a perfect middle-grade-fantasy-school book if it weren’t for the violence. There are light moments, in which the students joke about the teachers, become friends, have disagreements, learn together… and a few paragraphs later it gets brutal. I mean it; this book has the best action scenes.
When I read a book, I rarely think about the action. Yes, it creates tension, you’re afraid for the characters, but the non-climatic fight scenes are rarely the ones that leave you shivering. But here, they are dynamic, well-written, and original. It’s not just violence; it’s a blend of violence and magic, all in the span of a few instants, and the writing makes you feel that.
But the best action scenes weren’t actually the fight ones: my favorite parts of this book were the scenes set on the Blade Path, precariously hanged pipes some novices walk on to train, or also for fun. The kind of thing I would never do because heights, but those descriptions? They make me want to do it.
And Mark Lawrence isn’t just good at descriptions and action scenes: with this reread I have noticed how carefully woven in and perfectly timed all the foreshadowing was.
Red Sister is a book with no romance, and it’s a book about friendships. The novices have their friends, their rivals, and some of them are bullies sometimes – but when a threat comes from without, they fight for each other. Some of them start off as enemies and are friends by the end of the book, which is one of my favorite arcs characters can have. It would have been so easy for this book to go in girl-on-girl hate territory, but it never did that.
The worldbuilding was also fascinating. I didn’t catch most of it with the first read – it is kind of dense, and the pacing is also really slow, but this was so much fun I never really cared – but this is a post-apocalyptic fantasy world in which the sunlight is now really weak and all of humanity lives in a corridor along the equator; the rest of the world is covered in ice. And there’s magic. Yes, I loved the magic system, not because magic-inherited-with-blood is a trope I particularly love, but because it made the fight scenes even more beautiful.
There’s one thing I didn’t like, and it’s a spoiler
Hessa’s plotline. Yes, she dies a hero, she’s not fridged for the MC’s development, but you’re still killing off the only disabled character!
My rating: ★★★★¾