It’s not until you’re broken that you find your sharpest edge
“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.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Red Sister, but I was absolutely blown away. The cover is, admittedly, a little cheesy; reminiscent of shit 1908s fantasy-sci (if you’re old enough to know what I mean by that, sorry for making you feel old!). That being said, I have no other real criticisms… It reminded me of a grown-up Harry Potter; so much so, I had to check the publication date, to see which was written first. That’s no bad thing…
First things first: the characters are phenomenal and have real depth. It’s an almost entirely female cast. Who, by the way, are all totally kick-ass… And there’s a healthy heaping of backstory, cleverly woven out through the story arc. The characters grow, grow up, and become more assured versions of themselves, while still managing to resonate with our own humanity at their flawed and complex best. These are characters I wish I could be. They felt very “real” to me.
The plot of Red Sister is more intricate than many of the fantasy books I’ve read lately. Each thread, each little clue, seems to lead seamlessly onto the next twist of the story. The sub-plots were the usual detail that gave the main plot colour and life, but also pieces of a much larger jigsaw. I was completely hooked. The neat, and rather lovely, foreshadowing at the start of each section, combined with regressions played out through first-person storytelling, gave it fantastic tension and intrigue. And if the ending held few surprises, it was only because it was so satisfactorily prefaced and wrapped for the reader.
And the worldbuilding is epic! The detail was carefully given – sparingly, almost. And yet, I found I had almost a complete picture of Verity (the town in which most of the main action takes place), the convent (which is more of a sort of mystical mage school), and the larger world as a stage on which the action takes place. There were also various political and cultural issues, which were both part of and distinct from the main plot. It felt very complete, and very natural. The use of magic was a seamless part of the world, and neither the main focus of the book nor painted as some kind of “get out of jail free card”. I thought it was all very well done.
One of my favourite things about this book was the complete lack of a romantic angle. It didn’t need it, because the friendships were central to the connection between the characters and a key element in their motivations. A romance would have been superfluous. In its place, was a strongly held version of the “family you create”. I liked that a lot. It felt refreshing.
Red Sister is not your typical fantasy. It has all the elements: journeying, coming of age, magic, fantastical creatures, and a world which mirrors our own… But it was definitely more than that. The storytelling felt very carefully designed to illustrate a point. And the writing itself was so delicate, detailed, and beautiful. The prose, in particular, is transporting. Like all good books, Red Sister has its own kind of magic.
Thorn stood without motion, for only when you are still can you be the centre. She stood without sound, for only the silent can listen. She stood without fear, for only the fearless can understand their peril.
Hers was the stillness of the forest, rooted restlessness, oak-slow, pine-quick, a seething patience. Hers the stillness of ice walls that face the sea, clear and deep, blue secrets held cold against the truth of the world, a patience of aeons stacked against a sudden fall.
I would definitely recommend Red Sister for any fantasy fan, and particularly those who like their fantasy spiced with some kickass feminism and great worldbuilding. It had echoes of Ann McCaffrey for me, so, if you’re a fan of the Pern books, I think this is one you would enjoy.
Apparently, this is book one of a series (Grey Sister, Book of the Ancester 2, was released in May this year). While I can’t imagine what loose ends were left, I will be tuning in anyway to see what happens next!
I unfortunately can’t shoehorn Red Sister into a category for December Book Bingo. So, zero points for me on this one!
And if you’d like to see where I’m up to with Book Bingo so far, click here.