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When Nona Grey is sold by her village to a travelling child merchant, she is saved from a certain death by the abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy, a convent dedicated to turning out nuns fitted by their own personal strengths. For every Holy nun that they produce they also create far more deadly brands...
Red Sister (2017. 653 pages) is the first in a new trilogy, written by Mark Lawrence who had remarkable success with his previous two trilogies, The Broken Empire and The Red Queen War. The new trilogy is set in a brand-new world, not connected to the previous two.
Having liked the previous two I had high hopes for this new series and any book which starts with the sentence,
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.”
has my attention. It’s a great opening and hooked me from the start with a myriad of questions about just who these nuns were and why they were so deadly.
The book starts well as we meet Nona who we will follow throughout the tale. A poor child from the wilds she finds herself being taken to the city to be sold, although things do not go as she thinks and she finds herself in the boson of the convent training to be a nun.
There are several good things about the book, for a start one of Nona’s compatriots are not what they seem and to be - honest the penny didn’t drop until page 536 what was going on in front of me the whole time. Lawrence uses this device, to beneficial effect throughout and just when you think you have things worked out he sneaks behind to wrongfoot you.
The writing is to the same standard as his previous work and if you take any random fifty pages there is a lot to grab and hold you. I also liked the strong undercurrent of science fiction, although the author infuriatingly drip feeds the information at almost a glacial pace. I’m guessing that this will be expanded upon as the trilogy progresses.
There are elements which will resonate with fans of the Harry Potter books as this is essentially a story about Nona being schooled in a medieval Hogwarts and this is one of the weakest parts of the stories structure.
Apart from a section, and the beginning and end of the book, the book's story is focused down to Nona’s experiences in this one single place. The nuns are more than a little reminiscent of the Bene Gesserit with their martial abilities as well as the ability to influence others thinking and actions.
My biggest criticism is that by mainly confining the story to a single place the book has a lot of repetition, whether it is the fights the girls engage in or the combat practice, scenes which are revisited numerous times. I can’t help but think that had some of this been cut down the book could have lost two hundred pages and picked up its snail like pace.
That said, some of the background stuff may well open up and become relevant in the last two books, but for the time being, unless you have a great desire to relive someone else’s school days in detailed minutia, you might find this novel a bit of a slog.