Title: Grey Sister (Second Book of the Ancestor)
Author: Mark Lawrence
Release Date: April 3th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 432
I’m probably going to get booed and pelted with virtual tomatoes by every Grey Sister fan (read: everyone) for this review, so I’ve donned my tactical wetsuit and preemptively stationed myself behind a bunch of barrels.
I didn’t like Grey Sister as much as Red Sister.
*Dodges a tomato*
In fact, I think this is my least favourite Lawrence book.
*Ducks as the world turns into a hellscape of flying vegetables that are technically fruits*
Wa–Wait until I explain!
Grey Sister starts out two years after the ending of Red Sister and sees Nona inducted into Mystic Class. Nothing much has changed at the Convent of Sweet Mercy–Nona has the same friends, same classes, and the same teachers–except for two things: a new nemesis in the form of a girl called Joeli Namsis, and Keot. Keot is a devil that had transferred itself from Raymond Tacis to Nona at the conclusion of their battle in Book 1. He’s been living inside Nona for the past two years and has often spurred Nona into wild bursts of anger. So it’s been a chore for Nona to learn to keep him under control.
All this we know because we are told so in the first 50ish pages. Just casually mentioned like a recap, except it’s all new information to the reader.
They had seen her rages, back before she started to master Keot, and those hadn’t been pretty scenes. Fortunately Zole had suffered the worst of them, mostly out on the sands of Blade Hall, and had never complained…probably because she usually won the fight.
The ending of Red Sister was such a monumental and traumatic event and a pivotal crossroads for character development, and the addition of Keot makes it doubly so. So we should have been there with Nona for the aftermath. We should have walked alongside her during those two years of trying to readjust to school life while harbouring a devil inside her. That kind of crucial character journey shouldn’t have been reduced to a couple of throwaway remarks. It’s such a huge missed opportunity.
What I’ve noticed about Mark Lawrence is that he’s very good at writing protagonists that have one or two defining characteristics. Jorg is serious and somewhat sociopathic. Jalan is fearful and lazy. And Nona is very loyal but also kind of bloodthirsty. He’s good at plucking adjectives from the dictionary and molding them into human shapes. While this leads to characters that sometimes feel like RPG companions than real human beings, they’re fun and interesting to read about. Most of all, though, he’s good at developing them within the boundaries of those one or two characteristics. For example, Jalan at the end of The Liar’s Key is still just as afraid as Jalan in Prince of Fools, but there is additional depth to his fear–it’s no longer just a matter of him being a coward.
Nona didn’t get any such development in this book. It would have been interesting to see her love and loyalty for her friends being tested by the rage that Keot inflames, but we don’t get anything like that. Lawrence tells us that she’s changed, from wild rages to relative calm, but we’ve never seen her in that first state so Book 2 Nona ends up feeling more or less the same as Book 1 Nona. She still loves her friends and would still rush off into battle for them. And while those are likeable qualities, that can’t be all that a person is from childhood to teenagehood.
This sense of arrested development also extends to the side characters, Ara especially. One of my favourite things about Red Sister was Nona’s relationship with her schoolmates–like how Ara grew from rival to best friend. In Grey Sister, their interactions feel very shallow and we don’t even see much of Ara.
All this makes it sound like I hated the book, but I really didn’t. I still like the writing style–Lawrence moves from taut action sequences to florid ruminations with enviable ease. I also love the additional insight into Abess Glass and Kettle. Glass has become my favourite character in the book. She’s a spider through and through and I find her way of viewing the world as a chessboard fascinating. Her POVs are cerebral in a way that Nona’s can’t be and I love that.
The plot is a better-balanced mix of school and world-encompassing stuff than Red Sister. The first half is Nona and co. exploring the immediate area of the Abby and butting heads with Joeli and her cronies, which is fun stuff–especially the Shade Trial. The second half brings Sherzal and the nobility into the mix and also expands on the shipheart lore.
And apropos of nothing, I have a massive crush on the U.S. cover–mostly because Nona reminds me of Lorde (I can’t be the only one who thinks that).
All in all, this was a somewhat disappointing sequel to a book that was one of my favourites of 2017. Grey Sister widens of the scope of the world while stunting the growth of its major characters.
*Vaults over barrels, somersaults, and poses with flourish*
Now you may commence pelting.