Warning: This review contains major spoilers for Red Sister.
“In Mystic Class Nona Grey begins to learn the secrets of the universe. But so often even the deepest truths just make our choices harder. Before she leaves the Convent of Sweet Mercy Nona must choose her path and take the red of a Martial Sister, the grey of a Sister of Discretion, the blue of a Mystic Sister or the simple black of a Bride of the Ancestor and a life of prayer and service.
All that stands between her and these choices are the pride of a thwarted assassin, the ambition of a would-be empress wielding the Inquisition like a blade, and the vengeance of the empire’s richest lord.”
Those of you who read my review of Red Sister will know that the Book of the Ancestor series is the first time I’ve dipped my toe into Mark Lawrence’s work. As such, I was curious to see how he handles the tricky middle book – this can be where things go astray for some writers, as positioning their pieces for a finale starts to become a priority. Grey Sister expands on the world and its inhabitants very well indeed, and it balances all the elements of a good story. There was enough worldbuilding, clever plotting, character development, action, magic and mystery to leave me feeling satisfied on just about every front. Like its predecessor it’s a bloody business, but if you’re at all familiar with the author you know to expect that. I’d also like to note that Lawrence’s habit of beginning with a recap of the previous book is an absolute godsend and I wish more writers did it.
We begin two years on from the events of Red Sister, and Nona is still dealing with the aftermath. Wracked with guilt at the death of Hessa and dealing with some unexpected consequences of her deadly encounter with Raymel Tacsis, life at Sweet Mercy has grown considerably more complicated. The remaining Tacsis family are still calling for her head and on top of that she’s made a new enemy in Mystic class, Joeli, member of the influential Namsis family and a powerful threadworker. We’re also introduced to a new character, Keot, who makes an excellent foil for Nona and shakes things up a bit. I’m not going to delve too deeply into that as he’s intended to be a bit of a mystery, but imagine Robin Hobb’s Fitz and Nighteyes but really fucked up, and you’re not far off the relationship between Nona and Keot. It’s entertaining and unsettling in equal measure, to say the least. Nona is at heart still the fierce girl who loves easily and values friendship above everything, but she is definitely somewhat worse for wear and has understandable difficulty in controlling her anger.
In Red Sister sometimes the nuns ran together a bit for me, but here we get a clearer picture, particularly of Abbess Glass, and Sisters Apple and Kettle. One thing that I especially enjoyed was Glass as a PoV – she’s given plenty to do and while she’s as shrewd as ever, she is given remarkable depth. Her calm dignity, her fierce love of her students and her heartbreaking ruminations on her past have elevated her to the point that she became my favorite character over the course of the story. Kettle is also given time to shine, and her deepening friendship with Nona is at times surprisingly touching.
Despite the shake ups, the first half of the novel is familiar territory – Nona and co. are dealing with the everyday trials and tribulations of life at the Convent, training and tests, but the theft of the Shipheart that powers everything (including the heating system) has made life far less comfortable. Nona worries about the upcoming Shade Trial, a fiendishly difficult test of disguise made near impossible given her distinctive black eyes and lack of a shadow. There’s some subtle foreshadowing hidden in plain sight that doubles as worldbuilding, which is great fun to go back and look at once the reveals start dropping. What I expect will come to be known as “the tree scene” was well structured, well foreshadowed and damn good fun.
Not far from the halfway point, everything is thrown into chaos very suddenly. There’s a real sense of tension and drama, the stakes are high for just about everyone involved and the plot kicks into high gear. There are a number of surprising twists, and the seeds that are planted early in both Red and Grey Sister begin to come to fruition – the magic system continues to grow, but for me the real star of the show was the poisons, each given its own explanation and history that added a touch of authenticity to the world. It was a shame to see some interesting characters not getting too much time in the limelight but these sacrifices seemed necessary to keep the pacing and rhythm of the story. The ending was a little abrupt for my taste, but it’s followed by an epilogue that sent my eyebrows sailing to my hairline. Overall it’s a very strong second entry and I’ll be counting Holy Sister amongst my most highly anticipated future releases.
My thanks to Netgalley and Ace Books for the ARC of Grey Sister!
Bingo Squares 2018
- Reviewed on r/Fantasy
- Published 2018
- Fewer than 2500 GR Ratings (as of 4/2018)
- Features a Mountain Setting