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.
Copy for review provided by publisher.