Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence
2017 ended for me as it began: with an ARC of the latest Mark Lawrence masterpiece – neatly bookending an epic year. Last January I met Nona Grey for the first time and followed her through triumph and adversity (not necessarily in that order) as she trod the path of – for want of a better phrase – ninja-nun in training. You can read more of my review of Red Sister here.
In December, I acquired an ARC of Grey Sister, the second book in the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. Having waited for the relative calm of the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, I consumed Grey Sister in a bare three days – and I would have been faster but for the commitments of yuletide family life.
Finishing a book quickly is a good indication of its readability, the flow of the story and the enduring quality of Lawrence’s poetic prose, drawing me in and on as skilfully as an angler landing a fish.
Three years have passed since the climax of Red Sister, and we find Nona on the threshold of Mystic Class – the penultimate class for novices at the convent of Sweet Mercy. Nona bears more than mere scars of the past beneath her skin, and is about to embark on another tempestuous period in her life.
Grey Sister continues the same framing story that struck readers so powerfully in Red Sister. However, here the ‘Lano Tacsis lust for vengeance on the doorstep of Sweet Mercy’ is confined just to a prologue and epilogue – the big framing reveals already spent in Red Sister, and the ultimate denouement reserved for the final book in the trilogy (Holy Sister).
Other characters get more airtime, particularly Abbess Glass. Whole chapters are devoted to her story arc as it weaves around and over Nona’s like rippling braids of flame. Abbess Glass reminds me at times of two of Terry Pratchett’s most inspired creations. As the spider at the centre of a web of information she puts me in mind of Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. Like Vetinari, Glass has a dark past beneath her grey present that Lawrence teases us with. In her understanding – some might say manipulation – of people, Glass also has echoes of Granny Weatherwax – that foremost proponent of headology. However, Glass is more fragile than Esme Weatherwax, less certain than Havelock Vetinari, and the path she takes is more darkly ominous than either of Pratchett’s heroes.
Lawrence takes the magic system of Abeth further forward, drawing us into a murky weave of shadow work and thread work by which people can be connected and controlled. We learn more of the power and the danger of the great shiphearts – artefacts prized beyond measure. The benefit of amplified magic gained through proximity to one is offset by a similar exacerbation of any taint or impurity in the individual. There is a delicious imprecision to Lawrence’s magic systems – not unlike that moment in the best Dr Who episode ever, where David Tennant’s doctor said, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbily wobbly timey wimey… stuff.“ For those who like their magic systems to have an ordered logic like a Roman Legion – or a Patrick Rothfuss novel – then the vague vagaries of Nona’s powers might frustrate them. But for those who like magic to be mysterious – if not outright magical – then Lawrence springs plenty of surprises to savour within the basic architecture of the four different kinds of magic.
We also find out more of the Noi-guin cult of assassins who have stalked Nona since she first sent Raymel Tacsis beyond the brink of death (though he got better – sort of). When you have ninja-nuns equipped with speed, skill and an array of poisons in a cloak of many pockets, they need a worthy adversary, and the Noi-guin – as we found at the end of Red Sister – are more than that.
In pursuance of these plot aims, the story takes Nona and Abbess Glass well beyond the boundaries of Sweet Mercy, albeit by somewhat different routes. Along the way we learn more of the internecine politics of the empire and the climatic challenges in a world trying to preserve a thin corridor not merely of subsistence but of actual existence.
What’s the same
There is – as always in Lawrence’s work – the string of quotable lines or deft images that stop you in your tracks with their brilliance. There is a beauty in mathematics that Lawrence more than most would appreciate (particularly more so than Nona: “Sister Rail introduced her to algebra, and not gently.”) In maths the accretion of basic principles builds up to form elegant ideas that are at once both intricate and simple. In the same way Lawrence’s prose captures the attention with economy and grace. Here are just a few of the many that caught my eye, and other readers will doubtless find their own gems.
“Your foes shape your life more than friends ever could.”
“There are some lessons that must be written in scars.”
“Spend too long watching the long game and the short game will kill you.”
“The sky above was a deep maroon, shading towards black, strewn with dark ribbons of cloud that looked like lacerations where jagged peaks tore the heavens.”
“Smells will do that for you, reach out and pull you back across the years.”
“A crowd can be a lonely place …”
As with Red Sister, the veins of friendship and of belonging show through – particularly at the sharpest kinks in plot or character. That theme continues to set this series apart from the two Broken Empire trilogies where neither Jorg nor Jalan were ever well disposed to doing something for nothing, or anything for anyone else.
There is also – at first, at least – that familiar element of the boarding school rivalries; of lessons and training against a backdrop of cliques and bullies with a new villain emerging from the mists of Mystic Class. But Lawrence’s villains, within and without the convent, are far darker than Draco and Lucius Malfoy could ever be.
It will be for future generations to set a book within the context of its time. History’s lenses enable us to see Shakespeare’s view of Richard III as a politically influenced tale by a vulnerable playwright to favour the ruling dynasty that supplanted his play’s eponymous antihero. A brutally biased (but brilliantly written) blowing of one particular trumpet to heap opprobrium on a predecessor.
At the end of a year of turmoil (and bearing in mind this book was written over the course of 2015 and 2016) I still found some lines that spoke quite sharply to me.
“Now, more than ever. She felt the irony that the rock of faith, named for the foundations of their religion, lay rotten with voids and secret ways, permeable and ever changing.”
“It is surprising,” said Zole behind them, “that surrounded by unbelievers on all sides, and even among your own peasantry, so much effort is spent on hunting down and torturing those who agree with your faith almost entirely.”
“Nothing is as cruel as a righteous man.”
Grey Sister is the second book in a trilogy set within a framing story heavy with portent. In that regard at least it resembles The Wise Man’s Fear, and the problem with framing stories is that – having lavished some care and attention on what must be nearly the endpoint of the story – the reader’s mind of necessity wonders how the author will negotiate the surely tortuous path between the two. With The Wise Man’s Fear Rothfuss seems to me to have risked letting his story run away with him; like a tennis player two sets to love and a break down in the third, he has left himself an awful lot to do to bring the Kingkiller Chronicle to a succinct (i.e. less than 1000 pages) and satisfying conclusion.
At the same time, one can be reassured that Lawrence, metronomic writer of quality that he is, has already finished Holy Sister (and indeed has charged on through other projects), so this is a book two the reader can start in the sure and certain knowledge that book three is hot on its heels.
To an extent, Grey Sister ties off few loose ends. We meet new people, uncover deeper motivations – some of which we may already have suspected. Some major villains fall, but others remain, their ends unexplored, their lives unculled – unless their fate befell them off-camera, as it were. It is a shorter book than Red Sister but it shows the growing strength of Nona and her friends and allies (those that survive, that is. Sshhh – spoilers!).
Some readers may find a few switchbacks in the plot that stretch either their suspension of disbelief or their understanding of Red Sister, but reading Lawrence’s work is always an immersive experience, not an exercise in analysis or deconstruction.
Grey Sister is another triumph of a captivating heroine who would do anything for her friends, and I leave you with one last quote.
“We always hope that other people will see past the skin and bones we wear. These masks we’ve been given. We hope they’ll see us. Some spark, some flame, something that’s of worth.”
This book, like its heroine, is full of fire and worth.