Red Sister (Mark Lawrence)

5 stars

“I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin”

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.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book. I wasn’t a fan of Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ series, I couldn’t get into the mindset of the protagonist at all. I wasn’t even going to pick up this book initially, but reviews from friends lavished it in praise and I put in a review request, and then, assuming said request had been rejected, bought a copy. A copy arrived in my inbox just as another dropped on my doorstep and, I thought, well, this book and I were just meant to be together.

This book starts with an epilogue of sorts, but I won’t say too much about it, because to do so would be to ruin other parts of the story. The first entree into Nona’s story proper isn’t even through her own eyes, it’s through the eyes of a friend who’s viewing what little is left of their dwindling life from the wooden boards below a noose. Needless to say, the book opens with Nona having been sentenced to death for a crime unknown, and escaping the noose only through the good graces of the Abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy.

What follows after is my favourite sort of book. I am a complete sap for schools of magic and violence, all of my favourite books have some kind of place of learning in them. The beauty of this book is that it manages to stay ‘external’ whilst focusing inwards. We learn the stories of Nona’s early life and the history and politics of the world around her. It’s all told in great detail but I never once felt as if the information was simply being dumped upon me.

One thing I have always appreciated about Lawrence’s books is the genre that they lie in. A sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy. In Nona’s world, they are living on a planet watched over by a dying sun, where the feeble light grants them only a narrow corridor of living space between the ice. Moreso, they people of Abeth are not even from that world, having arrived on the planet many hundreds of years ago aboard great ships. I love the interplay between the fantasy and science fiction aspects of the book, how the magic seems to be amplified by the ‘shiphearts’ or reactor cores of the ancient space ships.

Nona, herself, is a wonderful character. She’s courageous and frightened, naive and world weary, stubborn and tentative. Basically, in all aspects, she is a young girl coming of age, a young girl thrust into a dark and unpleasant world and forced to come to terms with it. One of my favourite books when I was growing up was ‘Lirael’ by Garth Nix for many of the same reasons that I’ve come to love this book. We have a curious and introverted protagonist carving herself a niche in an environment that is both fascinating and dangerous. A young girl who has managed to utterly unbalance the world around her just by her existence. The way that Nona is written, and her feuds and friendships with those around her, is just amazing. I had flu for the last couple of days and just being able to curl up with this book was perfect escapism.

This is book filled with shadow, poison and politics. It’s a slow, rich, dark odyssey that, even after almost 500 pages, I felt sad to finish. ‘Grey Sister’, the second book, is due to be published next spring and, honestly, I can see myself reading this a good few times between.

So if you like complicated and truthful heroines, blood and bladework with a hefty dose of darkness then this is definitely a book you should have on your radar and your ‘to be read’ list.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for a copy in return for an honest review. What a book!

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Invictus (Ryan Graudin)

5 stars

Time flies when you’re plundering history.

Farway Gaius McCarthy was born outside of time. The son of a time-traveling Recorder from 2354 AD and a gladiator living in Rome in 95 AD, Far’s birth defies the laws of nature. Exploring history himself is all he’s ever wanted, and after failing his final time-traveling exam, Far takes a position commanding a ship with a crew of his friends as part of a black market operation to steal valuables from the past. 

But during a heist on the sinking Titanic, Far meets a mysterious girl who always seems to be one step ahead of him. Armed with knowledge that will bring Far’s very existence into question, she will lead Far and his team on a race through time to discover a frightening truth: History is not as steady as it seems.

So, I went into this book with fairly low expectations. Not because it’s Ryan Graudin (I love Graudin’s books!) but because I just don’t tend to fall in love with time travel stories. I’m going to be perfectly blunt and say that I find Dr Who a complete snoozefest, so, I wasn’t really sure whether the odds were stacked against this book before I’d even read it. Nevertheless, it was Graudin, the cover was shiny, it had gladiators, so I decided to give it a try.

I am so glad that I did.

So, without further ado, here’s a little precis of why I enjoyed this book so much.

  • I haven’t fallen for a motley crew of characters so completely since ‘Six of Crows’. They’re present and multi faceted and all with their foibles. The interpersonal relations between them are engaging and real. We’re talking a bunch of teenagers who spend 50% of their time piloting a cramped time machine throughout the universe. Yes, the time travelling is fun, but so is their banter and how they deal with the fact they’re living double lives, so wildly inexplicable to anyone other than eachother.
  • Without giving too much away, I really enjoyed Graudin’s use of theories of time and the universe.
  • The threat levels in this book are through the roof. Honestly, as much as this book is fun and bubbly and adorable, the ‘enemy’ that our heroes face is absolutely terrifying. I had to sit and read it in one sitting because I was too tense to put it down!
  • It’s light hearted but emotional…so emotional. I was actually quite surprised with how much the story made me feel. I was expecting a light hearted sci fi caper, and we got that but also with a side of real emotional clout.
  • RED PANDAS.
  • Established romance. I didn’t realise how much I like to see characters already in relationships until I started this book. You get to see the cute, fluffy stuff without any of the awkwardness.
  • The worldbuilding was really cool. I loved the concept of recorders and the entertainment value of their work, but I also really liked the unexpectedness of having Rome as the centre of time travel rather than somewhere like New York, which, frankly, would have been a whole lot less interesting. It was really easy to imagine a new high tech city being built around and through the historical ruins and monuments of Italy. It also felt more like a global city for it, with people congregating from all around the world to work in the time travel industry. It’s not an American-centric future, but somewhere where you’re just as likely to get some proper Chai as an espresso.
  • There is a lot of chai and gelato in this book, I was honestly developing cravings.

In the interest of writing a balanced review, I tried to think whether there was anything that I didn’t particularly like about this book. I really struggled. I suppose what I will say is that if you’re looking for some kind of grimdark hard sci fi time travel then it might not be for you. It’s as much about personal relationships between the crew as it is the time travel element. I really like that, but it might not be for everyone.

So, in short, an awesome book that got me through a direly dull weekend on-call. If I had to describe it in only a handful of words, I’d say it was effervescent, colourful and emotionally draining. If you like fast paced, quirky adventure stories then it’s definitely one you should check out.

Many thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for a copy in return for an honest review!