A brilliant new series from the bestselling author of PRINCE OF THORNS.
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.”
Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is a stunning book – I can’t deny that – initially I wanted to hold with a four star review but I’ve changed it to a five star because it is that good, and while I have reservations about it from my view point of a fan of his two previous trilogies (completely unrelated to this book – although the previous two are related to each other (remember that when you finish reading this book)), that’s hardly the fault of this book.
Where to begin – Mark Lawrence never starts a book with endless world building – neither does he stick it down your throat about two or three chapters in – in fact he is elusive to it being almost frustrating about the visions he has in his head. This is a compliment. World building – so beloved of all fantasy authors (so it seems) often gives me a bit of a headache because it is so tediously done. Honestly, I’m not that interested in how magic systems work/religious sects organise themselves – if the story works and its believable then I’m happy. (Lawrence does provide a detailed explanation of all of this at the very beginning – but it’s not part of the text of the story and because I love surprises, I didn’t read it and still haven’t, it made me think he finds world building in the main text as tedious as I do and decided to get it over and done with in one foul-swoop).
In Red Sister, Lawrence has envisaged something new, and also, eminently relatable. This is frustrating – when he does ‘new’ it’s great but sometimes he falls back onto more conventional fantasy ideas and sometimes I want to beat him for being a little bit lazy, almost as though it’s all been a bit too much and he’s had to incorporate something into the text that is easy, and already ‘known’ by those who read fantasy. As such there are painful parts of the text which are too much like Harry Potter ( a lot too much like Harry Potter), and there are brilliant parts where his four ‘races’ – so different to elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons – speak for a level of imagination that few others can employ. The ending – so shocking to many in other reviews – was signposted a little along the way if you just looked – and the narrative – while brilliantly done – does tend to dwell on the day to day life of little more than a child at school.
There are flashes of that old Lawrence from his first two trilogies – the witty speech of Jalan and his self-obsessed nature – and the brutality of Jorg – but they are only flashes and I think that other fans of his work will be left feeling the same way I do – not hard done by – but surprised – like, constantly surprised – that he could have changed his style so much. I have hopes that Nona might become as foul mouthed as his first two main characters – but she’s at a convent so I might be reaching a little too far.
This story will, however, win Lawrence a whole host of new fans – I don’t know where they’ll go from Red Sister, apart from onto the sequels, because I’m not totally convinced that they will appreciate Jorg and Jalan. Neither am I trying to imply that Lawrence has sold out for a bigger audience – the book is still brilliant – it is worth a read – it’s an easy book to like and an even easier book to read – but, well … just but really. It’s weird to feel the way I do after a five star book – I think that really I was hoping for a little ‘more’ perhaps a book worthy of a 6/5!!
Here’s the blurb:
“Gladiator meets Full Metal Jacket in Geraint Jones’ spectacular debut Blood Forest, where honour and duty, legions and tribes clash in bloody, heart-breaking glory.
It is AD 9. In Northern Europe an army is dying, and an empire is being brought to its knees.
The Roman Empire is at the height of its power. Rome’s soldiers brutally enforce imperial rule, and its legions are the most efficient and aggressive fighting force in the world. Governor Varus leads 15,000 seasoned legionnaires north to subdue the Germanic tribes. To Rome these people are savages, ripe for conquest. But the Romans know little of this densely forested territory governed by fiercely independent chieftains. Rome’s supposed ally, Arminius, has unified the disgruntled tribes, leading the would-be conquerors towards a deadly trap. As the army marches deeper into enemy territory, one small band of soldiers must face the deadliest of foes, alone.”
I must first make two things very clear 1) I don't like Ancient Rome/the Romans and I have no interest in studying it because I'm an Anglo-Saxonist 2) I tried to give this book a 4 star but I've had to give it a 5.
I am, I must confess, conflicted by those two points above! However, for all that I don't like books on Ancient Rome or the Romans (to me the Romans are all about sandals and skirts - and sandals are mentioned quite a few time) this story by Geraint Jones is stunning. I devoured it in two days and the reason I've opted for the 5 star is because the storyline infected my dreams last night and that means it's had a big impact on me. In case you want to know, it was the cover and the title that made me want to read the book.
I can not, and won't, attest to any historical accuracy in this story. As I said, I'm not a Roman historian however, the majority of this novel is about a small group of men, in a much larger army, and the events take place so far from Rome that the whole Roman 'thing' isn't actually all that important. This is a story of men, battle and comradeship, and perhaps, honour. It is very brutal, it is filled with foul language and hideous images of death and the dying.
The author manages to avoid stereotyping his Roman soldiers, and all of the 'main' small group (Felix, Titus, Moon, Rufus, Chicken, Micon, Cnaeus and Pavo) have something to add to the story. It is told in the first person - which makes for a quick and easy read anyway - but our main character - whose name we only find out very late on in the novel and who we must call 'Felix' as the rest of the cast do - is an intriguing, if conflicted individual. And to be honest, most of the soldiers are conflicted - in the descriptions of the way the men deal with the violent conflict they find themselves in - the author spares nothing in allowing them to be twisted and changed by the many violent actions they've taken part in, or are forced to take part in, and while we may deplore their acts with our more modern sensibilities - so much of this novel is life and death that we too end up accepting what they're doing.
The reader might not like all of the men, I don't think we're meant to, but that means that we can respect the actions they take.
Even if you don't like Roman historical fiction, I would still recommend this novel to you. The writing style is fresh, the battle scenes well told so that even though there are many battle scenes, they never feel repetitive, and although I think the weakest part of the novel might well be its ending, when all the secrets and lies are exposed about the truth of the men making the decisions for the army that Felix and his comrades are a member of, I would still be interested in reading more about Felix.
BOOK REVIEW – DEPOSED BY DAVID BARBAREE (HISTORICAL FICTION) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Here’s the blurb;
“More gripping than Game of Thrones and more ruthless than House of Cards – this a stunning new thriller of power, treachery and revenge
In a darkened cell, a brutally deposed dictator lies crippled – deprived of his power, his freedom – and his eyes.
On the edge of utter despair, his only companion is the young boy who brings him his meagre rations, a mere child who fears his own shadow. But to one who has held and lost the highest power, one thing alone is crystal clear: even emperors were mere children once.
Ten years later, the new ruler’s son watches uneasily over his father’s empire. Wherever he looks rebellion is festering, and those closest to him have turned traitor once before.
To this city in crisis comes a hugely wealthy senator from the very edge of the empire, a young and angry ward at his heels. He is witty but inscrutable, generous with his time and money to a leader in desperate need of a friend – and he wears a bandage over his blinded eyes.
The fallen emperor’s name is Nero.”
Wow, what a stunning debut novel.
I’ve never read any Roman themed novels before the last few weeks, but it would seem that they are both very popular and really rather numerous (I think this is now my sixth or seventh). That said, the books that I’ve read have, more of less, dealt with similar time periods and events. In the case of this novel, I’ve not long since read The Young Nero by Elizabeth George which follows Nero through his younger years and this novel seemed quite a perfect follow up.
This novel, however, is far more wickedly complicated and an absolute delight to read. It has a fast pace and is a very easy read. A note for future readers – do take account of the chapter headings – the novel moves through many different points of views and through two different time periods, as well as occasionally going backward in that time period. It sounds complicated, but it’s a brilliant way of unravelling the events of the novel.
I think it would be fair to say it’s a fairly simple story told in a complicated way – it’s about intrigue in the Roman Government during the AD 60’s-70’s – but it is also so much more than that because of the multiple point of views. This allows the author to decipher events as others see them, with all their attendant prejudices, worries and fears. It is, it must be said, as complex as the House of Cards and as much fun. The portrayal of the corrupt nature of the Roman Government is done very well – I garnered much more from this novel about events in Rome and the wider Roman Empire than I did The Young Nero.
The two timelines, interwoven throughout the novel, eventually offer explanations to the events taking place in the later timeline and while some may find the storyline a little far-fetched, I found it to be told in such a believable way that I had no problem allowing the author to take me down a slightly unconventional route.
My only slight gripe is that I’d assumed this was a standalone novel, and clearly it isn’t, which means I’ll have to keep my eye out for the next novel because I am incredibly keen to read more about Barbaree’s reimagining of Ancient Rome and his Deposed Nero.