I’m primarily writing this blog post for those people who either on Facebook or on Reddit indicated that they would like to hear a few spoiler-free thoughts on Mark Lawrence’s The Book of the Ancestor trilogy which starts with Red Sister. But I’m also writing this blog post for me. Being involved in the creation of these books was a wonderful experience and this poor blog of mine had been neglected for too long as I tend to spend most of my time and energy on That Thorn Guy. Which I love doing, so it’s really not a complaint, more just an observation.
I started beta-reading for Mark Lawrence over two years ago, when one day he said to me: ‘I’ve written a short story (I foolishly agreed to write 3 for various things) – I’m not sure it works … maybe it does … dunno … wanna read it?’
I read the story, and loved it. I gave him a lot of feedback on what worked and what didn’t work for me, what I liked what I didn’t like so much, carefully criticizing bits here and there, while profusely praising others. I read it again the next day, added a few more thoughts and then helped him select a title for it. It became ‘Bad Seed’ and to date one of my favourite short stories from Mark.
Some weeks later he sent me the next story. I remember I read it at work in my lunch break. I worked for a wine merchant company back then and we were given champagne to taste which I was sipping at my desk as I was reading the story. It was oddly appropriate because once again I was so impressed with his writing that all I wanted was to celebrate him. I wiped a few tears away from my eyes, sipped some more champagne and thought to myself that if someone had made a decision for me, ruling that I was only allowed to read Mark Lawrence for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t even object. A sentiment which I even repeated in my short review of Bad Seed later. Little did I know then that it was to become more or less true. Following all the short stories, in less than two years I read six not yet published novels from him, most of them more than just once.
I take critiquing his work very seriously. These are my favourite books we’re talking about here, after all, and so most precious to me. It matters a lot to me that they end up being as good as it is humanly possible and given that they are written by Mark, they need to be even better than that. He has such incredible talent and skill that nothing less than amazing will do. This determination of mine is also somewhat reflected in there being two Makin stories in Road Brothers. Mark wrote Mercy first, which I thought was a little too weak for such a popular character as Sir Makin (compared to some of Mark’s other short stories), and insisted he wrote a better one. When he started dragging his feet and said he had no ideas what the story could be about, I suggested he came up with how Sir Makin became captain of the Ancraths’ palace guard. He stalked off, came back and handed me A Rescue, which I thought was a little stronger. To date every single time a reader says they liked Mercy more Mark will surely bring it to my attention. Or he just simply points me at his poll which has more votes for Mercy.
I don’t know much about how other authors employ beta-readers, but I think many give them a finished draft which probably gets altered following the feedback. Mark Lawrence is not one of these authors. He prefers learning from the feedback and make use of it in the next book rather than re-write anything. This was one of the reasons why I felt particularly lucky to beta-read his upcoming trilogy as he was writing it, chapter by chapter. It gave me a much bigger chance to make an impact, with my notes generally looked at straight away and acted upon in the same or in the next chapter. The other reason was that I’m very meticulous. I take my time and look at every little detail carefully, commenting on most of them. I catch typos I notice. I make suggestions. I flag things that concern me or are not clear to me as a reader. I raise questions. I catch inconsistencies. I praise the things I love.
I’m not always right and by no means perfect. My suggestions and ideas are not always taken aboard, but they are always considered. And those few that make it onto the pages, beautifully brought to life under his fingertips, I’m very proud of. To watch them grow, to be woven into the core of the tale is all the payment I could ever ask for.
I started reading Red Sister in February 2015, when it was still called ‘Narrow Summer’. Mark sent me the first 14,000 words and also sent me the plan he had to write for the publisher to summarise the plot/setting. I read the first 14,000 words and ignored the plan. While I understood that it is important for publishers to have some sort of security knowing that the author has a view about where the story is heading and how, I wasn’t going to spoil, what I already suspected to be one of the best fantasy books ever written, for myself.
I think I loved the beginning of Red Sister more than any other book openings Mark had written before. Generally, when I read books I really like I forget all about the world around me and enjoy being taken, lost in the story. But Mark’s books also fill me with so much emotion I sometimes don’t know what to do with it. Red Sister was no different.
It was different however in many other respects. For the first time Mark’s books feature a female protagonist. She’s called Nona and she’s learning to become a fighting nun. It’s set in a new world (called Abeth) and unlike the first two trilogies it’s written in third-person narrative. A considerable amount of the books is set in the convent, Sweet Mercy, where Nona’s and other novices’ training takes place. The storylines do open out in each book however with the characters playing significant roles in the battle for power, control and survival which envelops their planet.
Just as The Red Queen’s War was different from The Broken Empire, The Book of the Ancestor once again takes a turn toward a completely new direction. I’m not sure how to put this, but there’s just a different feel to the series. So much so that initially I almost felt an urge to check the cover and reassure myself that it was indeed from Mark. But there’s no need for concern. Red Sister is simply stunning. The characters are beautifully drawn, its world is both rich and fascinating, the writing even more vibrant than before. The thought that repeatedly occurred to me as I read it was how this man can write absolutely anything he wanted to. Both his UK and US editors said it was the best book he had written so far.
His UK publisher, HarperVoyager wrote in their public announcement last year: “There are rich evocations of The Wizard of Earthsea and The Name of the Wind, alongside Mark’s trademark grit and violence”. To me personally it felt a lot like Hayao Miyazaki meets Harry Potter meets Mark Lawrence with a dash of X-men thrown into the mix.
From the very beginning I kept asking him if he had seen any of Myazaki’s works before, because there was something in his writing that reminded me of them. He hadn’t. Many of Hayao Myazaki’s movies have strong female leads, and just as Mark’s books they combine rich imagination with a profound deepness and beauty to the stories. There’s also something about the way they both portray human relationships. Deep inside they remind you of the value of true friendships at a time when modern technology tries to shape our feelings, our relationships into something more artificial.
One more thing I was especially fascinated with in the first book was the worldbuilding. It’s best to dive into the story without knowing anything about it and let it unfold as you read through the pages. You’ll thank me later.
I reviewed Red Sister on Goodreads with a single sentence: ‘If you thought that Mark Lawrence had stolen your heart before hold on tight now!’. I know there are readers who could never like Jorg, and even some who never really warmed to Jal, either, but I predict Nona will be generally adored. I also think that the book carries the potential to become the title Mark will be most widely known for, the series likely reaching a much broader audience than his previous books. He finished writing the third book on 7th August 2016 and I finished reading it and giving feedback on it about an hour later. All I can say is that I’m still mourning that the story has been finished and there’s no more of it!
And to answer questions raised by other readers on Facebook and Reddit:
Is the story epic, in a grander scale? Meaning, is it a story that will affect mostly the protagonist, or the whole world?
I think I have managed to answer this one above already. The story runs on two levels: the personal journey and development of characters and their relationships, but which will have roles to play in a much grander scale, too.
Is there any equally important protagonist alongside Nona, like Snorri with Jalan?
There’s a strong focus on a larger group of secondary characters, including Nona’s close friends and teachers. (I personally have a number of favourite characters from both groups I came to deeply care about. Much more than about any secondary characters in the previous books.)
Are there any invisible, transgender squirrels, identifying themselves as war machines?
No, but there’s a cat in the books! Also war machines.
…maybe he can do a trilogy omnibus so I can get it all at once
Between the three books, Red Sister, Book 2 (working title: Grey Sister) and Book 3 (working title: Holy Sister), there are story gaps of two or three years, and while there’s a grand story arc that ties the three books together, each volume can be enjoyed as its own tale. Hopefully there will be an omnibus one day, but I certainly encourage everyone to start reading next April instead of waiting till 2019.
Tell us about the main character! What kind of gal is she?
This is probably the hardest question to answer without giving too much away. The first word that comes to mind is fierce. But there’s also a lot of love in her, which was more absent from the previous protagonists. She values her friends greatly (also unlike Jorg and Jalan), and also strives to do well at schoolwork despite her impediments.
Art by Tomasz Jedruszek (portraying Ciri from The Witcher)
The Lightest Dark by INeedChemicalX