"Friendship is, well, it’s caring for somebody more than you do yourself."
"Fool, that’s not friendship, that’s love."
-The Doctor and Zagreus, Zagreus audio drama
Red Sister is the third series to come out by Mark Lawrence, who holds the position as the third most famous grimdark author alive after George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. Indeed, he might be the second most famous since George R.R. Martin doesn't self-identity as that sort of author.
His first series, The Broken Empire Trilogy, showed a Lelouch-esque boy genius destined to conquer the world like Alexander and prepared to sacrifice his soul in the process. The second, The Red Queen's War, followed the corrupt lothario Prince Jalan as he struggled to avoid doing the right thing as such always ended up being difficult. Both took place in the Hundred Kingdoms and were delightfully dark fantasy.
Red Sister, by contrast, takes place in a new world called the Corridor. Much like the previous volumes, it is a Medieval fantasy world but eschews the post-apocalypse elements to take place in what appears to be a planet suffering an ice age. It stars Nona Grey, a young peasant girl who is sold to a slaver who sends her briefly to the fighting pits before she ends up "rescued" from the noose by the region's militant order of nuns.
In the process, Nona, makes an enemy out of a serial killer pedophile as well as his extraordinarily rich father. As the words "serial killer pedophile" are used in this description, one should note this is not going to be a story with much in the way of moral ambiguity nor is the fact the protagonist a young girl a quality which makes it lighter fiction.
Some people label this Young Adult fiction due to the protagonists age while others believe this is just dark fantasy which stars children. Honestly, I think it's both and note that as a teenager, I loved reading dark and horrible stuff. It's why the Hunger Games is good and its derivatives aren't. The Hunger Games was awful to its protagonists and that's what made it awesome.
So is Red Sister any good?
Oh definitely. I have some complaints but, overall, I think Nona is every bit as enjoyable as Mark Lawrence's other protagonists. She has her faults, not being nearly as smart as Jorg or as funny as Jalan, but she is tirelessly determined. In fact, Nona is aggressively ignorant of the way the world "should" work and refuses to change when people try to teach her otherwise. She just doubles down on her own self-made of honor and stabs anyone who violates it. Nieztsche may have a disciple in this world.
Much of the book is devoted around the principle of what friendship really means. While this is a topic which seems more appropriate for a Saturday Morning Cartoon, Lawrence adults it up by making it clear this is about what real bonds are made of. Nona is willing to fight, die, and kill for her friends but expects them to hold to the same standard of companionship. It's a Band of Brothers-esque friendship with none of the twee despite the protagonists all being adolescents, with the exception of a few flash forwards to their adult days.
The book also spends a good deal of time developing the world's magical system, which relies on the subject being from one of the world's four tribes that have occasionally inbred over the past millennium. Describing it is difficult but I'd say it's basically like someone merged Harry Potter's bloodlines with the Dark Side of the Force. Most Sisters use their fighting skills in a state of calm but Nona manages to master her powers by being in a state of perpetual barely contained fury.
I liked the supporting cast as well with each of the young girls and their teachers having a strong well-defined personality. You could argue that some are "the rich one", "the royal one", and "the pious one." Also, I could spot which one of the sisters was going to turn traitor a mile away by their backstory but that didn't hurt things. I understood why Nona bonded so strongly to all the people she met and why they cared for her in return. Indeed, one of my favorite scenes is when I believed the otherwise corrupt clergy was willing to go to bat for her against a rich patron--just because she exposed how a person should be treated and briefly reminded them of their duties (as well as how much of a jackass their prosecutor was).
I give credit for some really stellar action sequences. Mark Lawrence proves himself a master of sword-fighting, gore, and emotional content in the Bruce Lee sense. The Red Sisters really do master the titular words Sword and Sorcery. There's almost a dozen battles, both serious and otherwise, in the book and all of them are awesomely described.
Are there flaws? A few.
Despite being a nunnery devoted to teaching women how to be a cross between Red Sonja and Warhammer 40K's Sisters of Battle, the Convent of Sweet Mercy doesn't actually feel that different from a lot of Hogwarts-influenced fiction. It functions more as a boarding school for those who have the talent of magic versus a place of genuine silent contemplation for the glory of the local deity (The Ancestor). Indeed, Nona isn't devout in the slightest and gets away with heresy and blasphemy that would have gotten me a good beating in modern day Catholic school let alone ancient times.
The next bit is difficult as I don't want to sound perverted but the book also is weirdly sexless. I'm aware the teenage young women are in a convent/fortress but it does seem a bit strange the subject of sexuality or attraction never comes up. When Harry Potter and company hit fourteen, they thought about it constantly because that was realistic. Nona never seems attracted to anyone nor do any of her fellow novices, which is conspicuous by its absence as they're surrounded by men (or women as a couple of characters' tastes may range). This brought me out of the story just a bit.
The book also sometimes devotes a little too much to the training montages of Nona and her schooling. While that's arguably the point, the fantasy genre is so littered with magical schools and the students thereof, that it felt a little longer than they should have been. Patrick Rothfuss, at least, put blonde ninjas in his schooling of Kvothe to liven things up. I would have preferred a couple of more field trips into the Emperor's court or gladiator pits than classes where the professors try to poison you.
Despite this, Red Sister is a great book and one I recommend for Mark Lawrence, grimdark, and YA fans alike. Some folk will dislike the book's central theme (friendship and what it means to have people you can trust) but I think it worked well. Nona is an excellent character and I'm interested in how she's going to develop in future books of the Ancestor series.