‘Holy Sister’ by Mark Lawrence

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Genres: Fantasy, Adult, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Grimdark, Political Fantasy, Science Fantasy

Similar books:

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

Rating: Highly Recommended High Epic Fantasy Battle Nun Story

Here’s the TL;DR for my review (SPOILERS!):

  • Pros
    • Careful interweaving of character and plot.
    • Seeing Abbess Glass’s schemes work out was just fantastic.
    • Great combat and action.
    • Seeing Nona develop as a person REALLY worked well, especially when her character arc is viewed over the whole series. She probably has the best character arc in any trilogy I’ve ever read.
    • Yisht as a villain was just fantastic.
    • Good audiobook.
  • Mixed
    • This book was basically nonstop plot and action. This was good in the sense that the book was really fast-paced and was therefore an easy read. However because the book never really slowed down, there were never any slower character-focused moments. I wished the author lowered the tension some occasionally so Nona and friends could chill a bit.
  • Cons
    • Nona never lost. Most protagonists benefit from going through try-fail cycles, but Nona never really fails. Sure, she endures setbacks, but she never flat out loses.
      • This is bad because a character losing raises the stakes. While this book was never short on stakes, the stakes could nonetheless have been higher.
    • The bad-guy nobles were lame and generically evil.

 

This was a good book, and was an excellent capstone on the trilogy. Spoilers below! My review will be for this book, and the series as a whole.

This book was many things, but foremost amongst them it was the culmination of Nona’s character arc. Nona begins this series as a lost, confused, friendless young girl who’s only talent is murder. By the end of this trilogy only Nona could be trusted with a superweapon to not use it to murder. Nona learns what the meaning of friendship and trust, and then teaches friendship and trust to the people around her. I’ve very rarely seen a character go from one pole to the other, in terms of character arcs.

Throughout the series the author deftly interplayed flashbacks/flashforwards to show Nona at different ages. In the prior books the flashbacks/flashforwards were a bit tacked on, however in this book they were blended in with the main text quite skillfully, in a style similar to that employed in ‘Ancillary Justice.’ By staggering out these scenes, the author was able to delightfully conceal details until they were vital to the plot. The author used this techniques in all three books, foreshadowing important events in the conclusion of the third book. It was really well done, viewing the series as a whole.

I liked the plot of this story. Basically, Nona is assigned by the now-deceased Abbess Glass to steal an amulet and a book book, in order to steal another book, in order to break into a fortress, in order to gain control of the moon (the moon is an orbital satellite with military and economic applications). The trouble is that literally everything is standing in their way of doing this- including a massive invasion force sent by a demonic enemy queen. I’m not going to get into the details, but Abbess Glass cast a long shadow over the story.

The setting is excellent, as it was in the prior two books. This book is set on an Ice-Age locked planet, with only a small strip of non-frozen territory is located around the equator of the planet. The ancient Four Tribes, ancestors of Nona and the other characters, created a moon which focuses the sun’s rays along the equator, keeping the ice melted- however in recent years the Four Tribes have lost the magic and political cohesion needed to keep the ice at bay.

The moon’s focus is drifting away, and the strip of unfrozen land is gradually being consumed by ice. Hidden under the ice are ancient secrets, left behind by not only the ancient Four Tribes, but also by a dreaded long-deceased civilization which is called ‘The Missing.’ The ruins left behind by The Missing are filled with demons which can possess you, give you great magic, and drive you to madness.

But all that is ancient history. Today civilization is being squeezed by ice on the north and south, while foreign nations are taking chunks out of the civilized empire on the east and west. On a planet with dwindling resources, conflict is the only option. So the Empire, with it’s peaceful Christian-seeming Ancestor-worshiping religion, is forced to defend itself in the waning years of life on the planet.

This final book in the series did a good job of answering basically all the questions I asked in the prior books, but also asking a whole lot of new ones. I hope the author returns to this setting to write more, because I want more knowledge. Abeth and the Focus Moon is the most unique setting I’ve read in a good long minute.

Now for some constructive criticism.

As mentioned above, Nona doesn’t have any Try-Fail cycles. Whatever Nona sets her mind to, she succeeds at. When she’s tested, she always passes the test. When she fights, she always wins. This fact rather reduces the tension when she fights because you know she’s going to win. I still think this book would have been better if Nona just flat out lost more often and those losses effected the plot.

As a comparison, consider Harry Dresden: he fights a bad guy, the bad guy kicks Harry’s ass; he fights the bad guy again, and his ass is kicked again; Harry fights the bad guy a third time, puts everything on the line, and Harry finally wins, but usually at a great cost to himself (a burned hand, a deal with a devil, killing a loved one, going insane… take your pick). These Try/Fail cycles increase the narrative tension.

Also, I had the same problem in this book which I had in the prior ones. Namely, the upper class enemies (specifically the Tacsis, Lansis and Namsis families), sucked. They were Snidely McWhiplash in terms of being generically cruel and vindictive. I don’t object to them being cruel and vindictive; I object to them being generic.

I much preferred Yisht the demon-possessed Ice Tribe woman, because she was a horrifyingly effective enemy. She was the only person who successfully inflicted pain upon Nona and those around her regularly. You know when Yisht appears that everything has gone horribly wrong and someone you like is about to die. How do you know that? You know that because every single time Yisht appears someone you like dies. Yisht as an antagonist walks the walk, while the upper class twits only talk the talk.

And there you have it. This series is one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s very dark, there are consequences, the setting is uber-creative, the plot is well done, the flashback/flashforward narrative structure is novel and it works well, and Nona has the best trilogy-spanning character arc I’ve ever read. This is the best book I’ve read thus far this year, and this series has catapulted itself onto my ‘Favorite books of all time’ list.

Start with ‘Red Sister,’ read ‘Grey Sister,’ and finish with ‘Holy Sister.’ It’s worth it.

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