Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence (Book Review)
This final volume in Nona Grey’s ninja-nun exploits carries the reader away at hunska speed through the world of Abeth, a breath-taking pace that has you reflecting in surprise, “How can I be only so few pages in when so much has already happened?”
After Lawrence’s handy “The Story so Far” recap – an innovation in which other authors are following him – we resume our acquaintance with Nona as she journeys along two different timelines. In that aspect, Holy Sister’s structure is reminiscent of Lawrence’s earlier work King of Thorns, where a present-day battle for Jorg’s castle was interleaved with and interconnected to an account of Jorg’s journey to the land of his mother’s family that had taken place some years earlier.
In Holy Sister, the present-day strand builds us up towards the events of that iconic framing story – opening with the line, “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure you bring an army of sufficient size” – which also punctuated the passages of Red Sister with its episodes of short, brutal conflicts between Sister Thorn and Lano Tacsis’ soldiers.
There are other writers who have dabbled with eye-catching framing stories; I am thinking particularly of a certain innkeeper you may have heard of, somewhat retired in his silence of three parts. Brilliantly written as Rothfuss’s work is, much of the present framing story of Rothfuss’s Kote and the Waystone Inn still feels significantly remote from the past of Kvothe in The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. As a reader, I fear there is still a huge gap for Rothfuss to bridge.
However, Lawrence brings his Book of the Ancestor trilogy to a deeply satisfying touchdown as the present thread of Holy Sister seamlessly runs into and on from the framing story. That emphatic squaring of the circle of how the trilogy begins and ends might make you think Lawrence is a plotter in the Abercrombie or Peter V. Brett mould rather than an avowed pantser who is as often surprised as his reader by the twists in his tales.
Alongside this present-day catch up and run-on storyline, Lawrence gives us a past story set three years earlier. This thread begins literally before the last dust has had time to settle on the ending of Grey Sister. We follow events from the point where Lawrence left Nona and her bedraggled party shivering in a brief hiatus from peril. In some respects, their dilemma on a narrow mountain pass might remind you of the end of the film The Italian Job – the very unfinished business of escape. Lawrence is far too honest a writer to immediately wave some magic wand that transports his characters safely home, so a substantial fraction of Holy Sister’s narrative is consumed by fifteen-year-old Nona’s bid to escape from Sherzal’s forces.
Lawrence’s short story Bound bisects these two timelines almost exactly. While it sheds no spoilers for Holy Sister in either direction, the short story complements the novel more completely than any other interstitial companion work to a main series that I have read.
The past storyline carries us further over the face of Abeth than we have previously travelled. Zole and Nona work together against a haunting environment and a series of increasingly implacable foes. One can see why Lawrence would feel, even with the conclusion of the Ancestor trilogy, that Abeth still remains a fertile world which he has already begun writing his way back to.
The present storyline, as is hinted in the trilogy’s framing story, is collapsing towards a blazing red end of times where all are in danger and many may not be saved.
Characters we have come to love stride into peril singing the song of the ancestor. The battle scenes are vivid and frenetic. Lawrence’s inventiveness comes to the fore as he weaves the magic of his world in different subtle ways so that each sharp kink in events is at once a tremendous surprise and yet utterly consistent and logical with the worldbuilding that has gone before – all illustrated as ever with Lawrence’s smooth silver prose:
“The shadows had joined hands to usher in evening’s gloom and behind closed doors the first candles were being lit.”
In some ways, Nona’s tale has always had elements of a Young Adult book. Where Jorg was a child in the company of men (rather brutal men, those Road Brothers), Nona grew up alongside her fellow students in a school setting, with bells and timetables and subjects and teachers, like many a Magician’s Guild, or Wizard School. The close-knit band of novices Ruli, Jula and Ara continue to be the engine of Nona’s conspiracies to work around adult strictures and constraints – all to some higher plan.
However, in Holy Sister I find myself feeling more for the adults as the world falls down around them. It is the teachers who catch my eye – not just Apple and Kettle – even curmudgeonly Wheel shakes off some of the shackles of senior convent villainess. And then there is Sister Pan, the geriatric Mistress Path, a relic of her own glittering youth. We come to love Pan just as much as Nona does.
“She hadn’t realised she loved the old woman before. But she did. And Nona Grey could no more walk away from that than from her own skin.”
Then there is of course Abbess Glass – Holy Sister ungifted with any strain of magic to influence or communicate, yet with a reach that stretches further than reason should allow, still pulling the strings that motivate the varied agents in her long long plan.
Lawrence in his writing has made reference to how his characters – like any of us – are a product of memory, fashioned by experience and how we reacted to it. In Holy Sister, he touches on another theme, one perhaps pertinent to our time. Like Oliver Cromwell, we are ourselves, warts and all, and those imperfections of body or spirit are not just marks on us, they are part of who and what we are. A point Nona voices quite eloquently when confronted with a potential path to perfection.
“But a person’s flaws are part of them.” Nona couldn’t keep the horror from her words. “My temper is a bad thing, but it’s part of who I am … if you got rid of all those parts of you and approached this ideal… isn’t that everyone becoming the same?”
So for Nona, as for so many of us, life is not a struggle to remove our flaws so much as manage, master, control and – in the case of Nona’s temper – utilise them.
In Holy Sister, we journey with Nona not just along a path of the past and the path of the present, but also along a journey to save the world – and a journey to become her best self, warts and all. For Nona, falling from that path is not an option – well, not an easy option.