As everyone knows, there are four types of nun: prayer nuns, stealth nuns, magic nuns, and murder nuns. The convent of Sweet Mercy trains them all.
Nona Grey – a child steeped in blood almost since birth – is saved from the gallows and taken to the convent. For the first time ever, she has friends, and enough to eat. She learns to read and fight and use her talents to their fullness. Outside the walls, as the world grows colder, her enemies gather and strengthen.
This book is best described as grimdark fantasy, though that’s not entirely accurate. there are sci-fi elements, albeit minor ones, and the tone is not always consistent. It’s definitely mostly gritty violence and unflinching acceptance of horrors, but sometimes the book cheers up a bit.
The setting is very original – a world almost entirely covered by advancing ice, with humanity making a sparse living on the circle of warmth around the equator. Magic is both more detailed and different to the standard fantasy variants, although tonally quite reminiscent of the author’s other work. I love the idea of murder nuns, and I rather like having a violent child as the protagonist; it’s not something often attempted, and it’s mostly well done in this book.
Red Sister‘s big problem is the amount of information crammed into it. To give you a flavour of how significant that is, the book starts with a glossary of the key terms and relevant social structure. I’ve got a lot of patience for setup in novels – it’s a necessary component of speculative fiction, and can be done extremely well – but if you need to set out the major ideas before beginning the book proper, then that’s a sign that the focus might be too diffuse.
Red Sister covers a lot of characters over a lot of time and in a lot of locations. It could almost have been split into two separate books, which would have tightened the narrative and allowed for more focus on the key ideas of each section. There’s so much going on that no individual element seems to get the time and space it deserves. The convent, which is the primary setting, is never firmly established enough to give a concrete sense of place; even at the end of the book, I found I was still hazy on some key details.
Plots and subplots appear and then disappear again, not coming back until much later with no mention made of them in between. Some moments don’t have the impact that they should, both in and out of the story; significant events that radically change the situation are ignored by characters with a keen interest in them.
Certain elements and scenes are really good. The evolution of Nona as a character is compelling, and there’s a definite sense of a complex world existing around, rather than for, the story. There’s just a lot of dead ends and snarled-round plot points to hack through to get to the good bits.
Partly because of the child protagonist and the mostly-supportive school setting, the tone in the book jumps around a lot. Sometimes it’s high epic fantasy – particularly in the flash-forwards that frame the main narrative. Sometimes it’s grimdark, with mud and blood and grittiness. Sometimes, jarringly, it’s the Chalet School, with plucky kids outwitting staid adults with schemes and bubbly friendship. These ingredients do not all mesh well with each other. You can’t solve a grimdark problem in a boarding school story way, and you definitely shouldn’t do the reverse.
The prose is similarly a bit inconsistent. Generally, it’s strong, but it shifts to match the tone, and the overall impression is of bits of different books connected together. Sticking in one strong voice throughout would probably have done a lot for the books cohesion, several strong voices makes the book quotable instead. I felt the prose was best and most effective at its most ornate, in the flash-forwards and the climactic reveals, but ornate prose only works if you don’t put it right next to more utilitarian phrasing.
Red Sister is an ambitious experiment that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite come off. There are too many false notes and places skimmed where they should have been delved into. Too much happens in too short a time in too alien a place. It’s a shame, because the book contains the seeds of something really good and fresh. Hopefully, the second book – Grey Sister – benefits from the world-building and characterisation of the first book, making something a bit tighter and more cohesive.