Red Sister is the first in a new fantasy trilogy from Mark Lawrence. I’ve been a fan of Mark’s work for quite a while, so I must admit that I went into the new book with high expectations, and a little trepidation. Could the new book, the new world, the new characters – could they excite, horrify, depress and elate, could they explore the human condition as well as his preceding works? Just to get it out of the way, the answer was an emphatic yes. This is a book very distinct from everything that came before; what it has in common though is a narrative that pulls no punches, and characters that are beautifully, brokenly, repellently, cleverly human.
Anyway, enough with the panegyric. On to the detail. I’m aiming to keep this spoiler-free, but proceed at your own risk.
The world of Red Sister – well, it’s two worlds really. Perhaps three. The first, the one on which we spend most of our time, is a nunnery. It’s almost a closed system, a school of values, social and martial, locked away on an isolated plateau, barely accessible. But inside the confines of that nunnery, there are wonders. Girls are brought here to learn, and to become something other than they are. There are classes on spirituality, of course, but there are also classes on poisons. On bladework. On ways to tweak the structure of the universe in a manner not always indistinguishable from magic. The world of the nunnery is somewhat claustrophobic – the same girls, the same classes, the same faces, day after d ay in somewhat splendid isolation. But it also exists to be transformative, to give opportunities, and to prepare a generation of children to be greater than they might otherwise have been.
In any event, the institutional claustrophobia is pitch perfect; the bells that toll out stretches of life are an example; from changing lessons to fires, everything is marked, everything is regular, even the irregular constrained within the system. That said, the air crackles with intensity within those bounds – the reader can see something generations old, shaping people like hothouse flowers, in every opened book, every prank with digestively explosive toxins, every hand=to-hand bout. The nunnery is a place, but also a system, and the reality and effectiveness of that system is visible in the characters. The obdurate walls, the cracked desks, the smiling or spiteful teachers – they all come together to make this an institution which pervades the page, and will seep off of it into your spirit, if you let it.
The nunnery, of course, is just a smaller part of a wider spectrum. This is a world which, on its face, echoes the medieval. There’s an Emperor, there are sword-wielding goons. There are sad villages, out in the depths of nowhere, where people have to make hard choices whilst scrabbling to get by. But there’s hints, to some degree, of something more. We see much of this from the corner of the narrative eye – in discussions between characters, in things which are implied in the unsaid word. The broader world lives between belts of encircling ice – as much constrained in the larger form as the nunnery in the smaller. But there is politics out there, and murder, and other, stranger things. Unlike the Broken Empire, this is not a world defined by its ghosts – it has more vitality than that, a sense of hopefulness, a sense of the need for change, at least some of the time. This wider world doesn’t impinge too thoroughly onto the concerns of the nunnery too often, but when it does, the stakes are high. This is a world where, with sufficient forward planning, small levers can still change the course of events.
Then there’s the magic. I won’t get into details with that one, but there is definitely a sense of another reality there. A feeling of something distinctly Other. It’s a space which can only be accessed by a few, a space where danger sits alongside the cost that has to be paid for using energy to change the world a little out of true. This strangeness, this otherness, evokes a sense of caution, and of the need for exploration. Alongside the hints of an ages old history littering the world, the magic is a strange and wonderful thing; a sense of mingled wonder and terror is brought to bear, either in spite of or due to the fact that what the magic can do is fascinating and appalling in equal measure. In any event, the narrative brings it to life, this other realm of hope and danger, just as much as the sprawling band of life around the world, and as much as the intense energy and interpersonal intrigue of the nunnery.
This is a world which feels real, and one which grabbed hold and didn’t let go. It has hints of strangeness, touches of familiarity, and above all, a vivid sense of place.
Of course, the tapestry of a world isn’t terribly useful if you don’t have characters to put upon it. Fortunately, here the narrative absolutely delivers. There’s a broader plot circling throughout, and more on that later, but I’d be prepared to argue that at core, this is a book about an individual, and their character. Our protagonist, Nona is drawn into the hands of the nunnery, as a child, mortal clay to be shaped. But what is obvious from her first introduction is a sense of will, an obduracy and a fierceness which make her, if not different from her peers, certainly distinct. Each has their own strengths – the girl who can touch the fringes of seemingly magical otherness, the one with an eye for politics and the main chance, the one who is actually a people person – but our protagonist is none of these. She is a fighter.
That’s a simple word for a complex mentality, explored throughout the text. Nona fights, not for grand, sprawling reasons, but for personal ones. She fights to protect friends. She fights to settle grudges. She fights for herself. There’s a core there of frustration, of rage, of a need to do the necessary, and to enjoy it, in some ways. Nona can, at times, be the monster she wills herself to be. And it’s an impressively frightening one. But behind it all, is a fragility, a sense of fear, of misunderstanding. Nona is not good with people. She relates, if not badly, then slightly askew. Her loyalty to her friends is undeniable, a rock of solid truth running through her – an urge to repay trust and loyalty tenfold. Nona is a lost girl, not in being eternally young, but carrying the tragedies of childhood and sometimes struggle to break away from them. She is a complex creature of fear, anger and loyalty. She could, in other contexts, be the perfect weapon, the henchwoman – here, she shines, a girl slowly moving to adulthood, trying top define herself and fight against her demons, emotional and physical. In this respect, we see Nona entire. There is unvarnished truth sat across the pages, as we delve into the raw depths of Nona’s psyche. There’s an exposure here, a hurt, a vulnerability wrapped up in anger, which leaps out of the text, takes you by the throat, and won’t let go. But as Nona searches for the answer to the question of who she is, and what she wants, the reader cannot help but be drawn along as well, in sympathy, tragedy and victory. If Nona is damaged, sometimes wrong, and often confused in herself and others – she is very real.
In becoming herself, she is ably assisted by a sprawling cast of characters. Some get more time than others, of course, but they feel like an ensemble. There are Nona’s sometimes-friends and occasional enemies in her classes at the Nunnery, ranging from the seemingly perfectly aristocratic to the apparently brutal. Each sparkles on the page, regardless, their relationships with each other given room to grow. We see them through Nona’s rather perceptive eyes, and they grow up alongside her – small rivalries ending or expanding into other directions, friendships forming and mutating over time. There are adults here as well – largely the teachers at the monastery, a motley bunch, easily distinguishable – from the cheery to the starkly unpleasant, but all with an energy and focus, a sense of humanity which kept them perfectly plausibly on the page. In the end though, this is Nona’s story – and watching her learn and grow, shaping herself and those around her, watching her core personality emerge and stand against the vagaries of the world – it all rings true.
The plot – I shan’t spoil. In broad strokes though, we’re looking at Nona’s journey through the Nunnery. Her training, her understanding of who she is, and exactly which powers she holds. That’s the closer end of the story, if you like, following Nona as she becomes herself. As part of that process, has a need for loyalty, and that loyalty creates problems, and engenders es powerful enemies. Part of the story is in her surviving their attentions, and seeking to do more than survive. There’s also a broader story at work, the shifting politics of courts and martial geographies, the intrigues of those around Nona, looking to use her in some way or another. There are layers to the narrative, to what drives the reader to keep turning the page – each has its hooks, and they all bind very effectively. If one edge of the story is off the stage, another will be walking on, keeping your heart in your mouth, light in your eyes – and keeping you turning at least one more page. It certainly did for me, at any rate – I picked it up late one afternoon, and couldn’t go to sleep until I was done, at some troubling hour of the next morning.
Is it worth reading? Very much so. This isn’t the Broken Empire, in either of its incarnations. It’s something new. But if the narrative, the world, the characters – if they are all different, then the core strengths are the same. This is an intriguing world, with a plot that will suck you in, and characters who absolutely will not let you go. If you’re coming to Red Sister from Jorg or Jalan – well, Nona is neither of them, but she is as fascinating in her own world as they were in theirs. If you’re coming to the book without reading Lawrence’s other tales – this will make a fine introduction. So yes, this one is very much worth reading.