Red Sister took me two whole weeks to read, mostly due to attempting to move into a new house (with all the requisite furniture purchases and utility company wrangles) and an important family berveavement (not that a family bereavement is ever unimportant). Still, the length of reading time shouldn’t be taken as anything even remotely like a criticism of Red Sister – I loved this book. If anything, it’s remarkable I managed to read it in only two weeks!
Plot summary: 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…
Rating for Red Sister: * * * * *
Assassin nuns? I know, right. Just try explaining the plot of this one to a work colleague who asks what you’ve been reading. Any reading credibility you just had is gone. Except… it’s not that, not really. Red Sister is a detailed, unique and fairly formal work of epic fantasy and I could not put it down.
I used the word ‘formal’ there to avoid having to use ‘heavy,’ which implies the arduous slog that I recall every time I consider starting another Dickens novel. Red Sister isn’t heavy in that sense of the word – the pages fair flew by and I never struggled picking the book up to continue reading. It’s just that the plot isn’t a light one, the world-building is very detailed and the dialogue is quite, well, formal. It’s not a light, easy read.
But it’s oh-so-worth it. Calling them ‘assassin nuns’ doesn’t really do them justice, because they are bad-ass. Essentially we have a training academy, but the students head off into four different disciplines – some of them go down the religious worship route, but others become poisoners or assassin-type figures. We’re not talking a Harry Potter or Morrigan Crow type school though. The Convent of Sweet Mercy is very dark and brutal and, for clarity, Red Sister is not a Young Adult book. There are some brutal fight scenes and a smattering of torture-esque grossness. But, it is relevant to the plot. Honestly.
There are two points that I particularly appreciated about Red Sister, that made it a little different from all the usual fantasy series:
- On commencing her education, Nona is not immediately bullied, despite the fact that classes have already started and friendship groups have already formed. She is not a lonesome outsider – she has a closeknit group of female friends, who did not dislike her on sight.
- Particulary this – I was rolling my eyes at all the ‘Chosen One’ stuff, when it was bloody obvious who the Chosen One was going to be… except not. We still genuinely don’t know who that person is, or even if there is a Chosen One at all. It was really creative and unique, and I loved it.
It is slow to start… and continue. And finish. But in a good way! You know like in Harry Potter, when you wish you could spend more pages learning about all their classes and the way Hogwarts works? Well, you have your wish in Red Sister. A large portion of the book is given over to entrenching you into Nona’s world. Sure, the over-arching plot is referenced every now and again, just to remind you why you’re there, but it’s mostly a slow-burn of a book. Don’t think that it’s boring, however. I loved every single second and would happily have read another 100 pages.
The world-building in this book is wonderful. Not just the Convent of Sweet Mercy, but the wider world, where the ice is slowly moving in to cover the remainder of civilisation thus far left unmarked. Some of the passages detailing the history of the land (briefly) have a lovely poetic sense to them and I hope we find out more in the next book.
No child truly believes they will be hanged. Even on the gallows platform with the rope scratching at their wrists and the shadow of the noose upon their face they know that someone will step forward, a mother, a father returned from some long absence, a king dispensing justice . . . someone. Few children have lived long enough to understand the world into which they were born. Perhaps few adults have either, but they at least have learned some bitter lessons.
If I had a criticism of Red Sister, it would be that it’s quite difficult to separate all the characters. It’s not that there’s a lot of characters exactly, but I did feel that all the teaching staff at the Convent, as well as the majority of the novices, did tend to blend together slightly. It was difficult to remember who was who. However (it’s amazing how many excuses you can make for a book you liked, isn’t it?), this didn’t actually impact my enjoyment in any way as the ‘important’ characters, the ones who were relevant to the plot, were noticeable enough to remember.
There are zero romantic sub-plots, which is always a plus in my book. There’s a throwaway reference to Nona having a crush on a couple of the other girls, but it definitely doesn’t form into a storyline.
I kept swinging between ratings for Red Sister, between four stars or five. In the end I decided that this book was a five star read – I was glued to the pages throughout and I’ve already preordered the next book, Grey Sister. I never pre-order books, so if that’s not a sign that this book is amazing, I don’t know what is.