Oh. Man. Getting an ARC of this book was pretty near the best thing that’s happened to me this year so far, and I felt like it should be treated as my birthday, so I immediately dove right in after having some yes-I-am-an-adult-and-can-eat-cake-whenever-I’d-like-but-this-is-SPECIAL-cake-goddamn-it cake.
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.
But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.
Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…
A man driving a wagonload of children in a cage doesn’t have to state his business. A farmer whose flesh lies sunken around his bones, and whose eyes are the colour of hunger, doesn’t have to explain himself if he walks up to such a man. Hunger lies beneath all of our ugliest transactions.
Now, it should be stated that the quote above is based on an ARC, but I don’t see it being changed. Who would change it? That is some deep shit right there. It’s a quote from early on, and it set me up for a lot of what was to come. Sweet Mercy has a few kids with similar stories. That’s the sort of world we’re introduced to here. Chapter 1: 9 year old is being prepped for hanging, with flashbacks of being more or less sold into slavery. Okay, this book is going to be daaaaaaark. Got it. I’ve read everything Mark Lawrence has published at this point. I knew what I was signing up for.
Many people have said that this is the best book Mark has ever written and I can certainly see why. I’m not that great a judge of how well a book is written, but based on my own enjoyment of it, I’d say this one ties The Wheel of Osheim for making me forget to eat dinner because I was too busy reading. This, for me, means this book was indeed fantastically written, because chubby girl with a bit of a cake obsession needs her nom-noms (let’s just say that like our eponymous red sister, it takes a lot to make me forget a meal, lol). It does have some great prose, it’s super quotable, has wonderful depth of characters, and great worldbuilding. It’s engaging, it twists, it turns, and it’s very difficult to put down. It also has Nona. My new literary best friend. ❤
I didn’t think I’d find one of Mark’s characters that I loved as much as I loved Jalan, but here we are. Nona is not taking any of your or anyone else’s bullshit, thank you very much. She’s got enough snark to make me grin, and skills to pay the bills. Nona is a certified badass. Having a strong female lead is always nice, but having a strong female lead who does things that has you cheering “YEEESSSS NOOOONA!” out loud at your place of business is on a bit of a different level. Also, my co-workers all now have a vehement book recommendation that I know none of them will ever take advantage of. Oh well.
I really liked the way that this story unfolded. Early on, Nona is saved by Abbess Glass from being hanged, and we don’t initially know why. We know that she is accused of murdering a man, a pit-fighter and the son of one of the most powerful men in the realm, but we don’t know what really happened. We got Nona’s backstory in a way that didn’t dump the whole thing on you at once, but instead spread it over the story in a series of flashbacks, stories-among-friends, and sort-of-dreams. The mystery is Nona’s story. This was amazingly well executed. Nona’s inexperience of the world around her was also really well done. Nona gets more or less thrown into a world unlike anything she could have imagined in her village, and things like pipes and globes are confusing to her at first. She can’t read or write. There is much about her world she doesn’t know. We watch Nona grow in many ways.
The different races in the world, or those who have the blood of the four tribes and the powers and skills that their blood gives them was really well thought out and fantastically realized. Very nearly each character was wholly unique and memorable, if not for their skills and traits resulting from bloodlines, then for their personality. The world itself is also really well imagined. A world with a dying sun and a falling moon, mostly covered in ice except for a Corridor around the equator. The whole story had a veil of darkness over it, just for those factors. An extra level of dark, if you will.
The Sweet Mercy convent, to me, was at first a bit reminiscent of Hogwarts (in a mostly nostalgic way), but much darker feeling, with the addition of training in martial arts and swordplay. Some people have said that the training section of the novel was overly long, but I quite enjoyed it. I’m a sucker for a magic school coming-of-age story, apparently, and having a character learn to wield a blade said to have ‘an edge that could cut the truth from a lie’ or ‘an edge cruel enough to cut silence and make it scream’ is something else that is on my list of shit that is awesome. The friendships and betrayals that Nona experiences throughout the story made this one really captivating for me. I just loved it. Every bit of this book was engaging to me as a reader.
THAT FUCKING ENDING THO. HHHRRRRNNNGGG! *ahem* calm. I am total calm. Serenity is the way to the Path, et cetera.
Look, here are some final thoughts to sum up my feelings: This book is just as amazing as I was lead to believe by everyone who raved about it before me. Can… can I just give it all the stars? I give this book this many stars. Read this book, everyone. Do read this book!