Thursday 5 January 2017

Red Sister - this is what is inside it. (My spoiler free review)

As a reviewer, Red Sister set me a challenge I have not had since "The Girl with All the Gifts." The conundrum of capturing how it made me feel and why, but without spoiling the experience for anyone who comes after me. (By the way - as far as The Girl With all the Gifts is concerned, just read it, don't watch the film - don't even watch the trailer - just read the book - and maybe my review here).

As Red Sister's April release date draws closer, there is a growing band of readers who have garnered an ARC by fair means or foul and are now pent up with a stifled desire to discuss, to analyse, to share those "Wow!" moments along with all the "Ooh"s and the "Aah"s and the "Ah ha!"s  longing for the spring deluge of discussion as the rest of the fantasy community get their hands on it.

Several reviewers I have seen have simply described it as Mark Lawrence's best book yet. Given the quality of the preceding six volumes, such a verdict sounded suspiciously like hyperbole. Indeed that was my first thought, but after 552 pages of Nona's often bloody story, describing Red Sister merely as his best work seems too faint a praise. (And now you will suspect me of hyperbole!)

The Writing

Lawrence has always been a gifted writer, a deliverer of liquid prose that flows in sinuous forms from page of book to mind of reader. In some ways great writing is like great wicket-keeping (bear with me here - particularly American readers).

[open obscure analogy] In cricket the wicket-keeper is always on view waiting behind the stumps - potentially in action with every ball that is bowled. The best wicket-keepers are unshowy, unfussy - commentators would say that you don't notice their wicket-keeping until the game demands some moment of brilliance - a stunning catch, a sharp run out, a dazzling stumping and then you would see their class. [/close obscure analogy]

In the same way great writing is economical, unfussy, unobtrusive. It cradles the reader like a comfortable hammock carrying you through the story. (Maybe I am over stretching my analogies or even my garden furniture). As a simple example, Lawrence does not step out of the stories to deliver descriptions - he doesn't pause to paint a portrait in words before we move on. He shows us people, their shape, their form through their actions and reaction.

And then there are the many sparks of brilliance, the quotes that resonate with a truth we always knew but had never recognised.

"I have been too young to know, and I have been too old to care. It's in the oh so narrow slice between that memories are made."

"Truth is an axe. Without judgement it's swung in great circles, wounding everybody."

And - perhaps my favourite, for its fourth wall breaking meta-ness

"A book is as dangerous a journey as any you might make.  The person who closes the back cover may not be the same as the person who opened the front."

And that is the essence of a good story - it changes people both those who read and those they read about.  Nona, her friends and her enemies are changed by the experience of Red Sister, and as a reader I was left buzzing with wonder and with questions.

The Story

Lawrence is a writer driven and inspired by quality writing.  In one of his blogposts here  he talked about types of readers from plotsters to beauticians, but the same kind of categorisation can be applied to writers. He is himself much more of a gardener/beautician than an architect/plotster.  He can be just as surprised as his readers by what happens between the top of the page and the bottom. Swept along by great writing and mesmeric characters we shot together through the turbulent rapids of the Broken Empire.

By book five and The Liar's Key - even Lawrence was swept along so fast and so far by the flow of story that it took him some effort to wrestle that - his longest book to a conclusion. An experience that had him flirt with plotting and planning to make sure the Wheel of Osheim came closer to a normal (non-Rothussian) word budget.

Red Sister has that familiar Lawrencian hallmark of quality writing in abundance. But it has something else too which elevates Red Sister above the Broken Empire and the Red Queen's War.

In Red Sister, there is more evidence of thoughtful world building - of pre-plotting of - planned structure, of an elegant and detailed framework on which to hang the glorious writing. That is not say that Lawrence has suddenly been brain-swapped with Joe Abercrombie or Peter V Brett. For those two writing is only begun after a level of planning and note making that makes devising Operation Overlord look like a planning a trip to the corner shop.

Nona Grey's story still has the delightful verve of creativity - the sudden challenge to the reader's expectations. Those moments like watching a Michelin starred chef who suddenly throws in ingredients that surely cannot go with what is in the pan and yet they do, giving a taste sensation that is unexpectedly divine.

But I found more steel of structure running through Nona's story - in a way which heightened the tension and my attachment to the characters always promising an arc that stretched further back and further forward than the moment in which Nona lives.

The Resonances

The more I read (and I do not read as much as I would like) the more I find connections between the book infront of me and other books and films. Maybe I am glimpsing flashes of what inspired the author, or maybe it is an empty echo in the soundbox of my own imagination.

The Convent of Sweet Mercy - where Nona lives and trains for most of the book - put me in mind of the Debora Kerr film Black Narcissus and in particular the bell tolling scene at 2 minutes 11 seconds in the trailer here  While Kerr's nuns were hardly assassins, they were certainly a little crazy cooped up on a remote and inaccessible convent where as David Farrar's character asserts, "There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated."

(image from

Celyn, Lawrence's youngest daughter, has a fondness for listening to audio books of Malory Towers; Red Sister inevitably has elements of a school story wound round its convent setting - albeit a school story of completely different context, quality and timbre to any I have read before.

There are classes and dormitories and petty jealousies seasoned with a spice of special powers. I have read other works that had a similar story spine - Rowling's Harry Potter, Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, and Canavan's The Magician's Guild.

There are children who are students and adults (nuns) who are teachers, each specialists in their own field. Red Sister even has The Poisoner - a mistress of potions, viewed with the same fearful suspicion in a similar subterranean den as a much lamented Professor Snape. At the more esoteric end of the spectrum, Mistress Path waxes cryptically lyrical in a way that would make Kvothe's Elodin seem a model of icy clarity.

But for all the siren call of those familiar elements, Red Sister strikes out in its own individual direction stalking through the reader's mind with captivating menace and fresh challenges.

Three of my daughters and my niece have all struggled through different ordeals of the Duke of Edinburgh experience - closely shadowed by the DoE leaders, as they

  • argued over who's stupid idea it was to try and cook pizza in a trangia and, 
  • pitched tents at night in the desperate exhaustion of the totally lost only for the morning to reveal that they were in the field next to their target campsite.  
and in one extreme night hike 
  • found they had accidentally strayed into a notorious dogging area and had to quickly turn their head lamps off, and be very careful to keep them off - and definitely not to flash them on and off - as they struggled through the area. 

However, those challenges and horrors pale into insignificance when compared to the ordeal of Red Sister's "ranging" where a party of twelve years olds have to scavenge their way across hostile territory in dire weather, past a plethora of enemies with murderous (rather than merely sordid) night time intentions.  The ranging draws the story threads together and weaves a magical climax which is somehow still totally topped by the book's final pages.

In those final pages, another connection flashed up in my mind - sort of reinforced by the US cover of Red Sister - that is to say a faint, almost wispy, but very particular parallel between Nona and JM Barrie's Peter Pan. But with that, as with all the other reverberating echoes of other stories, Lawrence's work mixes and moulds them and adds something all together darker, yet more inspiring to the mix.

The Inspiration and the World Building

The setting for Lawrence's Broken Empire arose from a single leap of imagination (aided by an internet mapping tool) - raise the world's sea levels by a few hundred metres and hey ho - instant campaign map. It makes the world interesting but comprehensible and one fan has even gone to the extent of mapping our world onto the Broken Empire and discovering - horror of horrors - Jorg is not just a Frenchman, but a Parisian,

The world of Abeth is a totally different concept, imagined in more detail. As G.R.Matthews would doubtless remind me, geography drives history. The flow of rivers and of trade, the barriers of sea and mountains have shaped not just countries but their people. In the same way, well thought out geography drives stories. The unique world of Red Sister, the origins of its people and the perils they face add great depth (if slightly less width!) to the story. The setting had me discussing glaciation with my second daughter (a quaternary scientist, you know) and sketching lunar orbits in my head as another slew of questions and connections went off like a sequence of firecrackers. I will not spoil it for the readers, but suffice to say, even the convent's plumbing system acquires a central role in the story.    

With the two Broken Empire set trilogies, there were clear literary inspirations for the anti-hero characters of Jorg (Alex from Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange") and Jalan (Flashman as re-imagined by George MacDonald Fraser).

Nona's inspiration was a picture by Tomasz Jedruszek and a suggestion from Lawrence's editor Jane Johnson that had his first book been "Princess of Thorns" rather than "Prince of Thorns", this picture might have been its cover.

His reply "I'm quite tempted to write that book now!" as he explored the concept here was somewhat prescient. From the seed of that picture and comment grew this book and its enthralling heroine. The multi-faceted Nona is at times as dark an adversary as Jorg and at others as unreliable a narrator as Jalan. In combat she can be as terrifying as Jalan in his berseker fury, or as cold as Jorg in his calculations.

Nona is also undeniably a girl. However, Lawrence has often said that he sets out to write people not genders.  Having written Red Sister about nuns in a convent teaching girls to fight, he asked a beta reader would the story have worked equally well if it had been about monks in a monastery teaching boys. And the answer came back yes - the genders were interchangeable. In a way I can see that too having read the story. However, part of that androgyneity maybe that at the age of ten or twelve - unswayed by adolescence - girls and boys are perhaps most nearly alike. But even then, there is one way in which I think Red Sister has - perhaps unwittingly - captured something more overtly female.

That is because, Red Sister is above all else a book about friendship. It begins and ends with friendships strained and sundered; shared and spared. And, though doubtless as much as half the population will call me wrong - there is a particular quality of steel and fire to female friendships that Red Sister portrays perfectly.

And as the dust settled on the final scene, I ran to message my reading partner across the water, to share our how? and why? and what next? questions. With one story closing, its protagonist stood in the shadow of a greater story still to come. My only remaining question is how the hell do I get my hands on an ARC of Grey Sister,

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