If you’ve heard anything about Mark Lawrence’s latest book, “Red Sister” ($27, Ace), you’ve probably seen that line. The reason that you’re seeing it so much, and that I’m repeating it here, is because it sets the tone for the book and tells you that you’re in for a very interesting ride.
After an incident in her home village, Nona Grey’s mother and neighbors give her to the child-taker, a man who collects children that may have special talents to sell them to the places that look for those abilities. She shows traces of Hunska heritage – one of the four great tribes of Abeth’s past – which makes her potentially valuable as a warrior and lands her at a training facility for gladiators. But after another incident, she finds herself in prison and scheduled to hang. At the last minute, the Abbess of the local convent intervenes, saving Nona at the cost of making an enemy of the powerful lord that sent her to the gallows.
Once at the Sweet Mercy convent, Nona shows exceptional speed and fighting skills and quickly begins her training to become a Red Sister, the warrior sect of the nuns. In order to become what she’s meant to be, though, she’ll have to fight off enemies both outside and within the walls of her new home.
“Red Sister” begins a completely new chapter for Lawrence, leaving the Broken Empire of his first six books behind. Readers of those books, will find similarities in this new world. It’s an interesting planet, capped on both ends by thick ice, with only a small ring around the center, known as the Corridor, that is inhabitable. And that ring is shrinking. Like the Broken Empire, there are also plenty of signs that this was once a technologically advanced planet, not the least of which is the the broken system that keeps the inhabitable area ice free … for now.
But no matter how interesting his worlds, the primary strength of Lawrence’s previous six books have been in character. In his prior two trilogies, he gave us a couple of characters that we shouldn’t have liked but somehow ended up loving in the brooding and violent Jorg Ancrath and the cowardly and seemingly shallow Jalan Kendeth. This time around, we seem, at first, to have a more traditional fantasy hero in Nona. The girl we meet standing at the gallows has had a tough life, but appears to be a good kid. Unlike his previous protagonists, who we liked in spite of their flaws, Nona is genuinely likeable from the beginning. Of course, it’s Mark Lawrence, so she has some secrets, which I’ll let you uncover on your own. Suffice it to say that I have a feeling Nona may end up being the most complex of his three main characters to date.
Lawrence’s work is still infinitely quotable, as the first line of this review will attest, with some clever turns of phrase throughout and a more philosophical bent at times. The writing is superb, and I’ve come to expect no less. If there is one thing that I miss from the previous series, it’s the humor. Though the books did have darkness, I also often found myself laughing out loud at the adventures of Jalan. Nona’s story, by comparison, is far more somber, even lacking much of the black humor of Jorg. Lawrence more than makes up for the loss of laughs, though, by giving Nona more depth of story and some compelling mystery.
Fans of his previous work should be pleased with “Red Sister,” which takes all of the elements that made those stories great and gives them a bit of a twist. Given the way this one started and the fact that Lawrence’s first two series built book over book to fantastic endings, I can’t wait to see what’s to come for Nona.