I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.
But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.
Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…
The experience of reading Red Sister is akin to getting onto the wrong train—the story draws you relentlessly in and you can’t see the journey ahead, much less guess what it holds. An equally daunting and exciting interruption of the mundane. Depending on the reader, you might decline the adventure and choose to disembark at the next stop. Or you could stay, drifting, allow yourself to be jolted out of your habits and see it through ‘til the end.
I’m glad I chose the latter.
So, what’s this book about?
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”
From those first lines we’re hurled unwary into a world where darkness abounds, where powerful children are traded for money, for favors, where priests are drawn to the lure of power, and where nuns schemed and skirmished, made alliances and broke them, called women to battle and sent them home again.
The touchstones of Nona Grey’s life had all been thrown into disarray when she was sold to a childtaker. Or perhaps, it was long before that, when she had been all of three or four years and held bloody hands to her mother and said, “this was inside him.” Or maybe that came long after, when Nona brought down near-death and woe upon Raymel Tacsis for hurting her friend and did not count the cost.
Perhaps it was the moment when she was yanked back from the brink of a descending death sentence by Abbess Glass who had seen in her a wild streak that could bloom into something magical if it was only allowed to flourish. Chance, fortune, fate—Nona didn’t really know what name to give to it. Her life was crowded with too many ghosts and all the horror of those memories was bound up in another.
Nevertheless, in the space where Nona’s story was gleaning words, legend was among them.
‘I was born for killing –the gods made me to ruin.’
Red Sister is the first book in a three-books series, and so, it falls on it to do a lot of heavy-lifting. For the most part, it succeeds in doing so effortlessly. In spare prose of great clarity (the quotability of this book is staggering), Lawrence builds a vivid, densely believable world with an intriguing confluence of history, politics, religion and culture. His world-building is a labyrinthine sprawl of past, present, and future. The layered narrative across the decades is more like bloody footprints steering you wildly into the dark than a walkway threaded with light burning lines through the reader’s mind. But Lawrence makes it work beautifully: we come to learn about Nona’s past along the other characters as memories are returned to her, unsought, from the ether. My mind was awhirl with thoughts, and, at the center of everything: the mystery of Nona Grey.
The story takes a while to get in gear, though. Red Sister is opaque in plot and glacial in pace. Large portions of the story involve lengthy accounts of Nona’s classes and extended lectures on the Ancestor. A reader who is expecting a more organic experience might struggle with the style and pacing. But here’s the thing: don’t be fooled by Red Sister’s meandering plot, the way I nearly was. This novel rewards commitment, and by the time the world’s magic grows from a whisper to a scream, what was sluggish has become enthralling. Like the way it’s always quiet just before a thunderclap erupts, the descent-into-hell plotline is splashed out in bright, bold strokes. Revelations about the characters struck me like a hammer blow. And by the book’s end, there is a brimming promise of the world widening even more.
The sprawling cast of mostly female characters also springs to life. The villains are frighteningly effective, and the development of the plot in tandem to how the main characters get to know each other is well played out. It’s no easy feat to handle the fraught, delicate balances of teenage female friendships as well as the terror and violence of an imminent war, but Lawrence does so masterly. I relished seeing these girls learning to form bonds with their peers, to empathize with them, to draw strength from each other instead of setting out to destroy each other in ways that a sexist system would benefit from. I’m honestly a huge button when it comes to lady friendships in books and this book new just where to push.
Red Sister is also a brilliant and triumphant reworking of the “Chosen One” trope, one that doesn’t radically deconstruct it so much as examine, test and explore it more extensively and profoundly. With one thought chasing the next in endless circles, I was snatching at hypotheses, turning them over in my head and promptly dismantling them. I’m very much looking forward to the sequel.
I absolutely adored Nona’s character. Her character contains multitudes. Nona is many things. A mixture of indomitableness and vulnerability boils behind her eyes, and there’s a roil beneath her ease that I wanted to see revealed. It was also fascinating how involute and multifaceted her character is: she’s the girl who always wears her heart on her sleeve, like a bright banner to attract the world’s snipers, the girl who holds onto her closed ones with a desperate, almost fear-laced quality and to whom friendships are more sacred than any faith. But she’s also the girl who often surrenders to the deeper pull of darkness, her bloodlust unslaked, letting the rage inside her loose in a spasm of violence, the girl who could never tamp down the beehive thrum of hate and rage and despair. This was Nona Grey’s gift, grotesque and marvelous, and absolutely riveting to read about.
‘Those that burn short burn bright. The shortest lives can cast the longest shadows.’
In conclusion, I am a heroine addict. I need leading ladies in order to survive. And this book, with an intriguing magic school setting and an all-female cast of deadly nuns, ticked all my boxes! Highly recommended!
⚠️ SPOILER ⚠️
My one other quibble with this book is how it treats its only disabled character, Hessa, who steps entirely onto the page and plays a major role in the resolution only to be killed off at the end. I was very disappointed when that happened. Disabled representation is already so scarce in Fantasy and I felt robbed out of a character with an incredible arc and so much potential.