Fantasy Review: ‘Red Sister’ by Mark Lawrence

This torture as training thing that keeps popping up in modern fantasy… is it going to stay a thing? Because frankly it hit its peak in The Long Price Quartet where it lasted all of a short prologue and has just gone down hill from there. A teacher poisoning her student to teach a lesson in being prepared is less edgy than it wants to be; it is no longer even shocking.

Red Sister is the latest outing from Mark Lawrence. It will be popular and win all kinds of fan awards. It is exactly what one would expect if they heard Lawrence was writing a new novel with a young girl as a protagonist. Or if a person suspected the author planned to respond to past criticisms with a giant ‘take that!’ A bloody outing where said girl has a horrible past, something about her that makes her special, and then cuts a bloody path toward a bit of vengeance. The all-girl academy trains near invincible warriors in the aforementioned torturous methods (though to be fair not to the preposterous extremes seen in some other recent releases).

For many readers this will be enough. After all Lawrence has a track record; broken worlds full of broken people is nothing new to his works. He remains something of a wordsmith and has done especially well framing the long game in Red Sister. Conversations flow naturally. And a whole new broken world with small clues dropped for perspective readers provides an inspired world for the new story. Once again we visit a far future in which our earth is nothing but a mis-remembered past.

However this pretty packaging seems hollow. Over the top violence and darkness always walks a fine line before it falls into parody. Lawrence avoided this in The Red Queen War trilogy with a strong thread of humor and genuinely likable characters (even as one felt guilty for liking such terrible people). The humor doesn’t show its face as much in Red Sister, leaving the near super-human nuns of the convent and their powers no balance. Nor does Nona provide a protagonist to feel much empathy or excitement for.

So what does that leave? A book that must be carried on its plot. There is a good story buried in here, absolutely one that will require the trilogy before it resolves anything. Once the plotting becomes clear world changing events are underway involving the very giver of life in this world. The relationships Nona does build are clearly foreshadowing even more pain in her future; and this being the author of the Broken Empire series more betrayals are coming from somewhere. There is promise here but to get to it one has to go through a long training montage followed by a test straight from Starship Troopers (throw ’em to the wild and see who comes back alive).

Red Sister is sure to be one of the more popular books of the year. That is fine and the author has earned his loyal legion. There is a frame here that could lead to a very good series. Sadly this is a step back from the excellent Prince of Fools when it comes to a series starting point. When the shocking no longer shocks it instead starts to drag. And worse, becomes predictable.

3 Stars

Copy for review provided by publisher.

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26 thoughts on “Fantasy Review: ‘Red Sister’ by Mark Lawrence

  1. I have yet to read Mark Lawrence, but reviews like yours have me thinking I’d better start with his earlier series. Humor is an important balance for darker stories, and it sounds like his earlier books strike that balance more successfully. Thanks for the helpful review!

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  2. And isn’t the MC supposed to be like ten years old? I thought that was odd, although maybe that’s only in the beginning of the story. It sounds remarkably like Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight, he’s even got a scene where the teacher poisons the entire class to see who can figure out the antidote. This one’s a “maybe” for me.

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    • She was young, but so was Jorg in Prince of Thorns. And that is what I have kinda realized lately thinking about the book (i wrote this review in January I think). This book had the tone of Prince of Thrones (not just in young protagonist but in pacing, lack of humor, and grimness), which I liked, but not Prince of Fools, which I have read twice already I liked so much.

      It isn’t a rehash by any means; Nora is very different than Jorg. Just a similar tone and not the one I enjoyed as much.

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  3. “Torture as training” definitely seems to be a thing in fantasy now. Though I actually thought the nuns treated Nona quite well (Glass did her best to protect her, in any case). I mean, compared to something like The Emperor’s Blades, where the trope reached ridiculous heights for me.

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    • Depends. Despite not being my favorite it IS a series start on its own, requiring no other reading. If it were me I would read Prince of Fools because I love that series. But a lot of people think this is his best yet.

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  4. Your review is exactly what I was afraid this book was going to be!
    I really liked Prince of Fools, and I’m pretty sure I’ll end up trying this one, but now I know I can lower my expectations. Thank you šŸ™‚

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  5. It is always interesting to read an absolutely different take on books that I had! I really appreciate your honesty here. I had a completely opposite experience with this story and found Nona to be a very raw and sincere character that worked wonderfully for me as such a young protagonist. My personal experience with this one was very character driven and I am looking forward to the next installment. It is so great to be able to compare or share varying views. Very well written indeed!

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    • I think I am on the outside looking in on this one for most bloggers. Which is fine, I don’t set out to be contrarian but occasionally something doesn’t click. I tried to state why best I could without bashing a book I did enjoy at times.

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      • I thought you did an excellent job! I actually was just telling another blogger how sometimes I enjoy reading the reviews that contradict my own thoughts the most. I gain a bit of additional insight šŸ˜‰

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  6. Maybe newcomers (or in my case relative newcomers, since I read only Prince of Thorns) will have a different reaction to what seems to be a constant in this author’s storytelling, but I can understand when someone who has read other books by Lawrence might see a repeating pattern and become the victim of “series fatigue”. Thanks for sharing! šŸ™‚

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    • A fair point and one I thought about while writing the review. It is impossible to read multiple books by an author and not compair them. Despite being my favorite author if I had started reading Pratchett with Soul Music followed by Moving Pictures I would have been put off by their similarities in a major way.

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  7. It does sound overly violent for me, why are people in USA so obsessed with violence, even in teen books these days? It so unsettling and ominous as can be seen in happenings around us

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    • To be fair it is a UK author so it is more universal than that.

      But to be an armchair philosopher I think Violence is the simplest way to show conflict. It takes a lot of skill to show emotional strife in a failing marriage; but hitting someone with a sharp stick conveys that there is conflict instantly.

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  8. I did enjoy this – but, at first I was all about the comparisons to his previous work. I kind of decided that I should read it as though it wasn’t Mark Lawrence – which obviously is unbelievably difficult tbh but I couldn’t help wondering how I would have felt about this book if that was genuinely the case. I do like all three of his series (well, only one in this series so far) but for different reasons. I thought Jorg was an excellent character and the Thorn books for me felt really original and incredibly dark. The Prince of Fools books – I loved them, they had a lovely old school feel with plenty of humour which helped to almost disguise the amount of violence that was also contained. I can completely understand why you’ve reread those. This, I like the school setting, I do think that Lawrence has really taken his time with the build up but I just enjoyed the characterisation. I don’t think you’re the only one to not enjoy this as much though and in some respects I think this novel could be quite polarising for Lawrence’s fans – whilst at the same time maybe attracting some new ones maybe.
    Lynn D

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  9. As a newcomer to Lawrence’s work, I think this is the best book for me to start with. But given the number of rave reviews for Red Sister so far, it’s nice to hear a more balanced perspective. I’m not really into the whole “broken people in a broken world” thing, but who knows? Maybe it’ll work for me here!

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  10. I need to give this another shot at some time, but I think you nailed it – the absence of humor and empathy were a big part of what made me pause on this one.

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  11. I really like your taste in books. šŸ™‚ I’ve been meaning to pick up Lawrence for a while now, and was planning to start with this series since I’ve an ARC. You bring up a lot of good points in your review, so I’m hopeful that if I like this one even a little, I’ll love his other series when I get around to it. šŸ™‚

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