Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Grey Sister - Mark Lawrence

Grey Sister’ is the sequel to Mark Lawrence’s acclaimed ‘Red Sister’, a book which I, for one, absolutely fell in love with. When I picked up Grey Sister, I did so with high expectations, and more than a little trepidation. Would it have the same precision and vivid worldbuilding of the original? Would the plot once again leave me turning pages late into the night (or early into the morning)? Would the characters be as weird, wonderful, and thoroughly human, with an emotional resonance that could equally crack a smile or wring out tears? The short answer, to save you some time, is yes. Grey Sister is a gem. Admittedly, it may be a gem found soaked in the blood of your enemies, but still.

** Warning - Potential minor spoilers below **

Part of the sparkle in that gem is Nona. After the events of Red Sister, Nona was inducted into the next class up – learning intrigue, perception, disguise and murder-by-stealth. It’s an opportunity to make new friends, but also, of course, to create a whole new set of exciting enemies. Nona still carries the same traits she had previously – she’s ferociously loyal to her friends, utterly heartbroken by betrayal, courageous, stubborn, and, at least initially, feels almost terminally straightforward. She’s never met a problem which she couldn’t punch in the face. Externally, Nona is absolutely fierce. She doesn’t have a shadow. Or irises. And she can probably break you in half with one hand behind her back. There’s an atmosphere of seething rage around her, and a sense that it’s held at bay entirely by willpower. Nona is emphatically not someone you want to mess around with. On the other hand, she carries a certain fragility – having almost built herself a personality by first principles, after childhood trauma, she looks for connection and warmth, for affection and loyalty, and mirrors those back in her friends.  She can break an attacker into teeny tiny pieces, but the betrayal of a friend would be a cruel wound, and the emotional damage is far more problematic than the physical.

This fragility, now masked somewhat, is backed by her relationships with friends and teachers. In this book, we do get to spend more time with Abbess Glass, the voice of the nunnery, and a woman who always seems to be twenty moves ahead of everyone else. Between cryptic plans, she appears invested in her nunnery, with pastoral care and tautly focused political advice running side-by-side with delightfully byzantine plots. Glass also serves as an occasional point-of-view character in the text, letting us have a broader socio-political understanding of events to run alongside Nona’s more limited (if more intense) perspective. There’s also the return of Nona’s gang of novices from the previous book. They’re a charming lot, and their banter and easy camaraderie really helps to ease the otherwise rather grim atmosphere.  

Then there’s Keot. Keot is – well, they say he’s a devil, but I’m not entirely sure what Keot is, and that’s alright. Practically, he’s a voice that lives in Nona’s head, a voice that urges her to rend, to kill, to strike back against an uncaring world with a boiling rage. Keot is not, it has to be said, very nice. Living inside Nona though, he has an interest in her safety – and so, somewhat begrudgingly, he helps her out from time to time, in between trying to get her to murder everyone.

What struck me about this relationship, and why I mention it specifically, is that both Keot and Nona are broken, in different ways. Nona struggles with her rage, but Keot embodies his own. Nona has built a life, with friends and enemies – Keot seems to lack a past, being more of a superheated id, tuned for aggression. Still, his relationship with Nona is fascinating, two beings with a certain remoteness about them, thrown together, for better or worse. I wanted to know more about Keot – what he was, where he came from, how he fits into a world of magic alongside the Path – and seeing his jagged edges grind up against Nona’s fragile control was a marvel; their dynamic may not be healthy, but it’s  close, taut and emotionally real – as well as absolutely riveting.

Against this are, of course, some absolutely delightful villains. These range in scale from schoolyard bullies with a penchant for control and verbal cruelty, through to deadly assassins. In between their nefarious efforts, there’s a sense that a few are working on the same level as the Abbess, looking at the bigger picture and trying to arrange it so that they come out on top. Those with a more limited focus also tend to be those whom we see more intimately – their pride, their smug verbal poison, their knives hidden between social smiles. It’s marvellous, seeing the rotten heart behind a golden visage, the raw and repugnant humanity on display.
All of this, of course, happens in a larger world. It’s a world enclosed in ice, where a thin strip of land encircling the globe keeps a population alive. It’s also a world where the ice creeps closer every year. This was alluded to in the previous book, but it’s more pronounced here. As the ice grinds unstoppably forward, cities are crushed beneath it. Farmland is lost. Resources decline.  War comes ever closer, and it seems we’re at a tipping point.

Alongside the murmurs of conflict, of encroaching ice, there are quieter facets of the world being explored. There’s the devils, like Keot – though who they are and what they want, even they may not be entirely sure of. There’s the Path, access to which seems to provide powers from the merely impressive to the downright superhuman – though always at a cost. There are mysterious devices, which flit between the mystical and the technological. There are hints of what came before, how the people on this world came to be there, and the price they paid to do so. It’s often in subtext, or in throwaway remarks, but there’s hints of so much history here, giving a sense not just of a world which is lived in, but one which has been lived in, broken, fixed and broken again, for a very long time. This is a world of legions, of duels and hard-faced politics. But it’s also one of magic, of twisting the strands of fate, of moving faster than the knives coming to gut you. Mostly though, it’s one where people live, a rich tapestry of joy and sorrow which, frankly, I can’t get enough of. As a setting, it’s vividly vital, and full of secrets to unearth.

The plot…well, as ever, no spoilers. Part of it is about Nona’s efforts to work through Grey class, and there are some marvellous magic-assassin-school shenanigans. Some beautifully constructed prose keeps the whole thing rolling along, school antics gaining the same kind of tension and gravitas usually reserved for a high-stakes heist. The internal ructions of the nunnery were a cracking read in Red Sister, and that quality persists here, as Nona drives herself forward, a stubbornly thrown rock in the tide of everyone else’s expectations. The wider world intrudes as well, and leave hard choices being made. There are betrayals, there’s blood and fire. There’s a young woman trying to work out who she is, and what she wants, while also kicking arse. There’s high politics, and some marvellously taut scheming. There’s secrets revealed, and struggles against repugnant villainy. Most of all, there’s a deep emotional resonance to Nona’s journey; as she struggles, so do we- there were moments where the prose seemed to reach out and tear holes in my heart, and parts where I was left shouting “Yes! Brilliant!” in an empty room. This book has sharp edges, and it will cut you if it can; and that emotional depth is what kept me turning the pages deep into the night (or early morning!), and it’s what makes me recommend it without reserve.

Grey Sister has real heart; its prose is compelling, the plot gripping. The characters are real, in all their bloody, broken glory. My expectations were high, and they were surpassed; it’s an absolutely storming sequel. Once you’ve finished Red Sister, this should be the very next book on your list.

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