Well, we’re reaching the end of the year and I’m so glad that this was one of my holiday reads. I listened to the audiobook for this one and straight away I can tell you that I will also be picking up the hardcover because this was a story filled with wonderful details that I’d like to go back and really examine thoroughly. As always, I do my best to remain spoiler-free so I’ll be skimming over and/or not delving into some of the characters and overarching plot.
To set the tone as it means to go on, we begin with young Nona, an 8 year old girl who is about to face the hangman’s noose. She stands accused of murder, and is snatched from certain death by the Abbess of the Sisters of Sweet Mercy Convent. Our setting is a harsh, frozen and unforgiving world – the people are forced to live in a narrow corridor hemmed in by ice, where the dying sun’s rays are reflected by the moon to provide just enough light and warmth to live. I haven’t read a great deal in the dying earth genre, but this was something that piqued my interest early on.
The story starts out slow and deliberate, so the immediate strength of the book lies with Nona. She is a strong-willed and defiant little girl who juts her chin out at a world that has treated her cruelly, but who also loves easily and fiercely. To a lonely child like Nona, friendship is without a doubt the most valuable commodity and Lawrence does an admirable job of showing us why. She is deeply relatable and her fears and motivations ring true. This is something that is personally important to me, and hits close to home. The poverty-stricken child who is plucked from obscurity is a well worn trope in fantasy, however many writers don’t delve too deeply into how this influences their mental state and behavior going forward. Having grown up poor myself, Nona’s continuing food anxiety and tendency to cling for dear life to those who show her kindness were just two ways in which she struck a chord with me. That she is also struggling with powers she doesn’t understand and trying to find her place in the world is just the icing on an already complex and delicious character.
The magical school aspect of the novel is pretty fun despite the grim and violent outside world, and the chemistry/hierarchy of the students is believable. The secondary characters have clear voices, personalities and motivations of their own and I grew fond of quite a few of them over the course of their classes. The magic system seems to grow more and more complex the more we learn about it, but in a way that is clearly planned and never used in a way that I thought cheap, or a bit of a cop-out (which is something I see way too often). We learn about the roles of various Sisters: Holy Sisters maintain the faith and are the most common, Red Sisters are the warrior class, Grey Sisters are a sort of sneaky, Rogue-y type and then there’s a class of Mystic Sisters who can manipulate the threads that connect everything. Which type of Nun you are depends in part upon the type of blood you carry, which I’m not going to go into here because honestly the whole concept of the clans and their history is fascinating and better discovered by reading the book. There are both kind and harsh teachers, and we’re drip-fed some tantalizing bits of information about the world through their lessons.
Lawrence juxtaposes some pretty harrowing flashbacks with present-day scenes and does so in a manner that both horrifies and gives the reader a breather when it’s needed. That’s not to say that all the present-day scenes are sunshine and sweetness – they are frequently stomach-clenching in their intensity. We’re also treated to a few flash-forwards throughout the novel, the content of which are agonizingly good and lead to a conclusion that left me open-mouthed and staring at the wall for a few minutes. He also has a real flair for writing drama and quotable, eyebrow-raising moments of wisdom.
As to criticisms, I find that I don’t have anything much to say. One thing I noticed with the audiobook were occasional mispronounced words, which threw me off now and then. But obviously, this isn’t a criticism of the writing. Those amongst you who list animal abuse as a deal-breaker will find one scene to be very difficult to read as it’s pretty upsetting – however, it’s only one scene, it serves a purpose instead of being gratuitous and I’d suggest skimming it rather than avoiding the book.
Those who typically don’t care for Dystopian fare may be surprised and delighted with what they find here – personally I was dreading the Dystopian/Dying Earth bingo square and had three false starts on it with various books that I couldn’t get into, but this turned out to be one of my top 10 reads of 2017. It’s going to be a very long wait for Grey Sister. 😦
r/Fantasy 2017 Bingo Squares
- Published in 2017
- AMA Author