Holy Sister Ends a Science Fantasy Trilogy That Finds Hope in Dark World

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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.

Holy Sister is available now.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Evil Cell Phones, Assassin Nuns, and Game of Thrones Meets Home Alone

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, by Nathan Ballingrud
Nathan Ballingrud has made a name for himself as a writer of disturbing short fiction, and his second collection proves that reputation is well deserved. Six stories—including the brand new novella The Butcher’s Table and the story The Visible Filth, which has already been adapted into the forthcoming film Wounds—explore different ideas of what it means to be a monster across varied settings and time periods. A 19th-century ship carries a crew to the borders of hell, where a terrible sacrifice is planned; in a modern-day bar in New Orleans, a lost cell phone us a portal to horrors beyond imagining. In hauntingly beautiful language, these are modern horror stories explore the darkness that is always around us, whether we’re brave enough to face it or not.

The Scribbly Man: The Children of D’hara, Episode One, by Terry Goodkind
The creator of the seemingly endless Sword of Truth saga returns with a novella-length installment starring fan-favorite characters Richard and Kahlan. The story picks up in the wake of the “end” of their story in Warheart, and chronicles what happens next—to both Richard and Kahlan and their children. This is the first in a planned series of shorter works that will continue one of the most crucial storylines in The Sword of Truth.

Holy Sister, by Mark Lawrence
The final book in Lawrence’s acclaimed Book of the Ancestor trilogy concludes the science fantasy story of Nona Grey, apprentice to a holy order of assassin nuns on the frozen planet of Albeth, where the ice is advancing and the empire is under siege. The emperor’s sister Sherzal knows Nona’s friend Zole holds the legendary shipheart—believed to be a core of one of the vessels that originally brought humanity to Albeth—and she’s determined to reclaim it. Traveling to the Convent of Sweet Mercy to complete her training, Nona is on the verge of taking the nun’s habit in her deadly order, provided an all-out war doesn’t disrupt her plans. But even fully-trained, and with the devious power of a shipheart at hand, Nona isn’t certain she’ll be able save her friends, or even herself, and turn the tide of a disastrous conflict. Struggling against the demons that seek to control her from within, Nona prepares for a final battle that will determine not just her own fate, but the fate of a world. Loaded with wild worldbuilding and dangerous women, this trilogy-ender is a satisfying treat for dark fantasy readers.

We Are Mayhem: A Black Star Renegades Novel, by Michael Moreci
The second book in Moreci’s Black Star Renegades series doesn’t give its heroes much time to bask in the victories that ended the first book. In the style of The Empire Strikes Back, destroying the Praxis ship the War Hammer, commanded by the ruthless Ga Halle, hasn’t done much to make the galaxy safer for Han Solo-esque rogue Cade Sura. He’s still in possession of the fearsome Rokura, the deadliest weapon ever designed… but he has no idea how to use it. As Kira Sen leads a small but determined rebel group into a Praxis city, hoping to strike a blow for freedom, Cade is brought by his former mentor Percival to a mythical world in a search of dangerous knowledge that could prove to be his undoing. Moreci’s second unashamed ode to his love for George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away is even more fun than the first.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K.J. Parker
World Fantasy Award-winning pseudonym K.J. Parker’s (neé Tom Holt) latest is military epic fantasy writ small: an in-depth, sharp-tongued history of one city under siege by invaders, and the immense efforts undertaken by one of its citizens to save the day. With scant supplies and no forces to muster, the city must look to Orhan, an expert… engineer? to deliver them from death. When you’re facing impossible odds, impossible solutions are necessary, and Orhan is the man to deliver them. Via fiendish invention, he may just be able to build himself and his neighbors a bridge across this metaphorical chasm. It’s Game of Thrones meets Home Alone.

Seven Blades in Black, by Sam Sykes
Sykes new Grave of Empires trilogy is built around Sal the Cacophony, a former mage and gunslinger hellbent on revenge against the 33 mages who tore her magic out of her. Arrested and waiting for execution for her crimes, Sal is given a chance to save herself with a confession, but the story she tells is more than just a list of crimes: she served in the Scar, a blasted wasteland caught between two vast empires, but now exists only to locate and kill the mages who betrayed and brutalized her. Sal will cross any line to complete her quest, and Sykes seems to have a similar regard for the rules of epic fantasy in this go-for-broke blend of Kill Bill and Final Fantasy.

The Sundering: Dread Empire’s Fall, by Walter Jon Williams
Amind the current space opera resurgence (seriously, the slate of recent and new high-concept, spacefaring SF books, from the Starfire series, to A Memory Called Empire, to Ancestral Night, is stunning) it’s worth drawing attention to Harper Voyager’s ongoing rereleases of Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall series—truly one of the best sci-fi trilogies of the 2000s, offering all the action, political complexity, and well-rounded characters of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch novels. As the series continues (a new installment, The Accidental War, arrived last year), it’s a great time to go back and see what you missed—or give them a reread in these slightly revamped, reedited “Author’s Definitive” editions.

What are you reading this week?

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Revealing Never Die, an Epic Fantasy of Death Gods and Resurrected Heroes

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Some of the most striking science fiction and fantasy novels of the past decade—we’re thinking of books like Andy Weir’s The Martian, Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series, and 2018 standout debut Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft—began life as self-published works, garnering praise from readers and eventually attracting the attention of major publishers.

And since 2015, a few of those self-publishing Cinderella stories—Josiah Bancroft’s among them—have come out of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, an annual contest organized by bestselling fantasy author Mark Lawrence. Books vying for the top prize are sent to prominent fantasy bloggers for review, and the winner is the book with the highest average review score.

Senlin Ascends, the first of the Books of Babel, wasn’t an SFBO finalist in 2016, but all the attention (as well as the book’s excellence and originality) nevertheless garnered Bancroft a publishing deal for his entire series with Orbit. That year’s winning book, Jonathan French’s The Gray Bastards, was picked up by Crown Publishing, and likewise rereleased earlier this year, to no shortage of acclaim.

Rob J. Hayes won the 2017 SFBO for his book Where Loyalties Lie, a grimdark pirate fantasy that earned the second-highest composite review score in the contest’s history, which encompasses more than 1,000 books. Lawrence has called him “one of self-publishing’s rising stars,” and we wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the next SFBO author to sign with a major publisher.

That’s all to explain why today, we’re pleased to debut the cover of Hayes’ next book, the standalone epic fantasy Never Die, set in a world of vengeful gods and resurrected heroes.

Featuring art by video game artist Felix Ortiz and design by Shawn T. King (who has previously worked with authors like Bradley P. Beaulieu and Michael Fletcher), the cover was created with the idea that the once-again self-published work would stand proudly beside titles from major publishers. We tend to think it will. How about you?

Check out the cover below the summary. Never Die releases in January 2019.

Ein is on a mission from God. A God of Death.

Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can’t do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.

Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper’s war.


Preorder Never Die, available January 29, 2019.

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