• Katya Lebeque

70% Dark Book Review - Red Sister

Happy Thursday, Ashlings! Special treat today (no tricks) as I'm starting an all-new series of book reviews named, after my beloved Lindt, 70% Dark!

It occurred to me only recently that someone else might have the same problem I do – loving stories that run a little dark but not liking stuff that’s, you know, too dark.

I have a pretty good memory and a really good imagination. I guess that goes without saying as a writer, but it can really be a disadvantage as a reader. I remember all the gratuitous gore, all the rape scenes (Who Fears Death, anyone? Or what about A Song of Ice and Fire?) and all the people-are-all-scum narratives too.

Is it too much to ask for a deliciously dark work of Fantasy or Upmarket Fiction without it leaving me unconscionably depressed? It turns out it’s not, if someone’s willing to do the legwork. So, in the words of Dr. Suess, I picked out a somebody – me.

My first entry into 70% Dark couldn’t wait because it is really that good. Mark Lawrence is no stranger to Dark Fantasy (he’s the author of Prince of Thorns) but this one of his, man, it’s a revelation. And it’s full of kick-ass females too.

Red Sister

Picture this: an order of deadly nuns in a fantasy world, trained in elite assassination from childhood and in magic. This is how the book starts: ‘It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.’

Awesome. Bad-ass. But, get this: now picture that it’s actually well-written.

None of this crap in Red Sister

I blame movies for the ham way most people think of this already familiar concept. Just picture Priest, Nun of That, Killer Nun and Asylum on TV. But this has none of the cliched ‘woman in a habit with a blade looking like a porn star’ in it. Instead, it somehow makes young girls trained to kill in a convent completely believable and nuanced in just a few chapters.

Red Sister has managed something very few other books have, by being loved by both men and women of the Fantasy genre. Fantasy’s more polarized than most, with what I consider four distinct camps and ne’er the twain (fraine?) shall meet:

  • Camp YA (aka Teenage Girl Takes on a Dystopia)

  • Camp Crown (aka Royalty Intrigue and lots of Feelings and maybe Fairies)

  • Camp Mage (Buff Wizard Fights Things) and

  • Camp Epic (aka Destroy the Magical Artefact while lots of complex World Building).

The first two are very female, the latter very male. But Lawrence has taken a very Camp Mage-type book, populated it with a teenage girl protagonist, added in some noble families and royalty intrigue and hinted at a Sci-Fi global cooling as opposed to warming crisis. With a lot of world-building.

If that’s sounds damn good, that’s because it is.

You're doing it right, Red Sister

All these things made me pick up the book, but what made me stay was the writing. Lawrence has a clean, spartan style most of the time that suits the heroine, so when he breaks out with a paragraph of true prose beauty, you want to run down a mountainside with blades drawn, screaming:

‘Here’s a moment.

All the world and more has rushed eternity’s length to reach this beat of your heart, screaming down the years. And if you let it, the universe, without drawing breath, will press itself through this fractured second and race to the next, on into a new eternity. Everything that is, the echoes of everything that ever was, the roots of all that will ever be, must pass through this moment that you own. Your only task is to give it pause – to make it notice.’

Awe. Some.

The rest of the time, Red Sister keeps its writing blades well-hidden. Instead of using crisper, sharper prose to make action more hard-hitting, Lawrence goes the other route and uses unexpected literary beauty to make the macabre cut deeper. Like in this section: ‘Nona pictured Raymel, golden hair curling across an unfurrowed brow, the smile opening into something else, blood sheeting crimson from the slices she’d set deep in the meat of his neck. ‘I pulled the dagger from his hip as I climbed.’

Nona Grey, fan art done by Jess Robson

And it keeps its secrets close too. When you find out who ‘Sister Thorn’ is in the Prologue I quoted before, the book is 80 percent done, and you want to fist pump. Yes really.

Grey Sister is out on shelves as of last month, so that is most definitely my next up for reading. But if you haven’t read Red Sister yet, do yourself a favour. A rarely gush over out-and-out Fantasy, especially from Camp Mage. But this one… It’s like Peter Brett and Patrick Rothfuss had a beauty baby. And she is deadly. Read it and weep.

Have you got any thoughts on Red Sister? Or what semi-dark book that’s empowering for women I should do next? Let me know in the comments or via email! I’m katyalebeque@gmail.com

© 2018 by Katya Lebeque. All rights reserved.

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