The titles of the three books in Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor series emphasize the emotional and physical journeys that the main character, Nona Grey, will make after becoming a novice within an order of assassin nuns. The first, Red Sister, is all about Nona as a warrior, growing into her physical power. Grey Sister, the second, is about Nona as a magician, growing into her mystical abilities.
The final volume, Holy Sister, explores powers of the spirit and of faith—a fitting end for a trilogy built on religious imagery. But if that makes the conclusion to the series sound pew-bound and cerebral, never fear: it’s anything but. The pacing is fast, the intrigue is ever-present, and as the climax spools out in the final third, I counted at least five different action sequences, one after another, with little chance for readers (or Nona) to catch their breath.
This is an ambitious and fascinating series, and it demands that you pay attention on every page.
For those not familiar with the series—though certainly, starting at the beginning is the way to go—the trappings are fantasy but the premise is science fiction, following the waning days of a civilization on a planet whose star is slowly dying. The “moon” (probably an artificial space station) warms a strip of the equator each night, staving off a complete freeze, but with the sun fading out, the volume of ice is growing, leading the peoples who populate the planet to go to war over its limited resources.
As to the fantasy elements: the civilization contains at least four different types of humanoids, and some of those have magical powers. The ultimate power source on the planet is a blend of science fiction and magic: the shiphearts that can control the Ark (one of the ancient vessels that brought civilization to the planet in the first place) can perhaps also control the moon’s rays and enhance mystical abilities. But the shiphearts can corrupt the user. (Think of them as crystal versions of the One Ring.)
Nona is a novice at an abbey that trains girls with magical gifts to serve their empire as fighters and assassins. (Aside: I love that assassin nuns seem to be a thing in SFF right now, from Robin LaFevers His Fair Assassin books to Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight trilogy.)
Nona is a rare three-blood who can access three different magical powers—hence, her journey through “Red” and “Gray” sister training. Zola, her fellow novice, is an even-rarer four-blood from the remote and dangerous ice tribes, and she supposedly can save everyone—though it’s never clear if that prophecy is made-up or has, over time, been garbled beyond measure. The characters in these books tend to be skeptical of prophecies and cynical about people, none more so than Nona—even if (or especially if) the same prophecy says she’s supposed to serve as Zola’s “shield.”
Lawrence’s storytelling is complex and fascinating, blending the character-driven narrative of Nona and her fellow novices training with an overarching story with the highest stakes imaginable. The worldbuilding maintains a mystical bent, and yet the story is reliant on the science as well.
While Grey Sister ended on a cliffhanger (almost literally), Holy Sister begins with a jump three years into the future with the appearance of Nona once again a lowly fighter in the Caltess—a sort of analogue to a fight club where unfortunates are forced to draw blood for the entertainment of spectators. But all is not as it seems, as Nona is still a novice in good standing, and is on a mission from her mentor, Abbess Glass. It’s this mission that drives the trilogy toward its end.
The narrative is split into two parts. The first concerns what happened immediately after events of that cliffhanger climax, three years previously, as Nona and Zola escape across the ice, and event teased throughout the first two books of the trilogy. It’s a perilous journey as chilling and dangerous as expected, but it also includes moments of remarkable beauty. Not that the pair can stop to take them in, pursued as they are by the mystical assassins after the shipheart they’re carrying.
The other narrative is the present day, as Nona faces invasion and the schemes of an old foe and seems to stumble into one fight after another. It’s this narrative that features the familiar cast of Nona’s fellow novices, including her best friend Ara and the lovers, Kettle the assassin and Apple the poisoner.
The two narratives are not presented in linear fashion, but intertwine until they come full circle in the final confrontation. If I have one complaint, it’s that Lawrence has packed almost too much incident into this volume, which could easily have been split into two separate books.
None of the plotting or superb worldbuilding would matter half as much if they didn’t accompany complex characterization for Nona, the supporting characters, and even the villains, but that is in ample supply as well. After all, the leader of the invading Empire only wants for her people to survive. If others have to die for her to achieve that, so be it.
But Nona is the character to root for, having evolved over the course of the series into someone who truly values loyalty and love. Some readers have placed this series in the “grimdark” genre. Certainly it is filled with terrible things happening to people who are both good and bad. It’s built on the black bones of a premise that seems to doom everyone before the first page is turned—no one will ever be able to relight a dead star. There are heart-wrenching deaths, and beloved characters undergo torture.
But if grimdark is defined as fantasy without hope, then the label doesn’t apply. In the end, Nona finally discovers what she truly believes in, becoming not Nona Grey but Nona the White, the true Holy Sister.
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