This review is going to be short because I didn’t finish the book, so I’m going to only be talking about the first half. Red Sister is the beginning of a new series (Book of the Ancestor), by Mark Lawrence. He’s also known for his Prince of Thorns books, which I also tried to read but they were a bit too intense for me. I was interested in a “cruel prince” character, but there was nothing redeemable about Jorg Ancrath, our protagonist, so I didn’t get past the first few chapters. This is not to say that Prince of Thorns isn’t a good book; it was written well, but it wasn’t for me. I hope, however, that I’ll have time to try it again in the future.
Anyways, Red Sister sort of shared the same fate; I didn’t finish it, either. But I actually enjoyed Red Sister for as long as I was reading. The protagonist, Nona Grey, was really sympathetic and I felt kind of a motherly attachment to her, I guess. She’s only ten years old, so an interesting protag choice for a book geared towards adults. Nona’s had a hard life, from being sold to the “Child-Taker,” and then sold again to a man who owns a fighting ring. There, she works alongside other small children as a janitor. It could have gone very badly- I wouldn’t have been surprised if she and the other children had been used for far more unsavory things- but Mr. Lawrence decided not to take that route and I’m glad for it.
The real trouble starts when Nona kills a very important man, who was threatening her friend. I forgot to mention this, but Nona takes her friendships very seriously. Anyone who declares themselves her friend is guaranteed fully and unadulterated protection from Nona, who has proven herself as a force to be reckoned with. So she almost kills this guy, who belongs to a powerful family. Rather than being hung for what she did, she’s spirited away by the abbess of Sweet Mercy, a convent of nuns who are trained in battle, espionage and poisoning, religious studies, and magic. By “magic,” I’m referring to this thing that they call “The Path,” which I’m still not entirely sure about. From what I gather, rather than being able to summon fireballs or perform magical spells or something, they can bring people who are on the brink of death closer to life again and things like that. I’m still lost on the subject, though I’m sure that if you read further, it comes into play.
So the whole book is set in Sweet Mercy, which functions like an academy. The girls go to classes, train, there are friendships forming everywhere, Nona finds herself tangled in a web of conspiracy about a million layers thick– your typical “school” universe. I enjoy these types of books, and I really did like Red Sister, because it subverted some important tropes too: like the act of pitting two girls against each other. We’re introduced to Arabella Jostis in the very beginning; like Nona, she’s a new arrival, but she’s sent to Sweet Mercy by her family and has all the money in the world. Nona and Arabella get off on the wrong foot and their relationship fragments more and more as the story goes on, but after Nona proves herself in a life-or-death situation, they get over their mutual distrust and start becoming friends. They even take on the role of “The Chosen One and the Shield,” with the former being Arabella and the latter, Nona.
Another thing I enjoyed was the whole “prophecy” angle. From the very beginning, Arabella is touted as “the Chosen One” and therefore the most important person at the convent. Nona discovers later, however, that all of the important religious and political leaders in their country think that “the Chosen One” and subsequent prophecies are just stuff and nonsense. No one actually believes that Arabella’s important for any reason other than being a Jostis.
The reason I stopped reading couldn’t be summed up better than Diana Wynne Jones, author of Howl’s Moving Castle (my favorite book of all time!) and a multitude of other stories. In one of the essays featured in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, Wynne Jones recalls that adult books needed an inordinate amount of description. When she tried to publish her first story for older readers, the would-be editor objected, claiming that her writing was “too short,” and “[he] didn’t get enough of a sense of wonder.” To which she wanted to retort, “But you should get a sense of wonder if you stop to imagine it!” She summarizes with two short sentences: Adults are different. They need me to do all that for them.
I’m all for description, sure, but Red Sister was so chock-full of meticulous details that I lost track of the story several times. Mr. Lawrence really doesn’t let you imagine anything for yourself because every single tiny thing- from Nona picking up a butter roll at dinner to Nona presenting herself in front of the High Priest- is fastidiously recorded. Do you think the butter role smells like fresh bread and salt? Wrong. The butter roll smells like x, y, z. Do you imagine Nona looking up at the High Priest with a glint in her eye? No. Nona does x, y, z. Pages and pages of description, whether it was inner monologue or the actions of the character, and for every single little thing that happened. I found myself getting bored even though the plot itself is very interesting, because we aren’t allowed to think independently while reading. Also, since each chapter is about four pages of action and twenty pages of description, the book moves at a snail-like pace.
I don’t plan on picking this book back up, and it’s sad because I really am interested in finding out what happens to Nona and Ara and the rest of their friends. But I’m not interested in sifting through thirty thousand pages of metaphors.
It’s still a good book, just not for me. If you’re interested in magic and warfare, and political turmoil piques your curiosity, you should check Red Sister out! Anyways, onto the next book. I think I’m going to try out Rebel of the Sands.