Grey Sister, second novel in Mark Lawrence’s BOOK OF THE ANCESTOR series, is a good follow-up to its predecessor. It’s not a perfect novel, but on the whole it’s exciting, well-written, and very gripping.
Since the last installment in the series, two years have passed, and Nona Grey is still a novice at the convent of Sweet Mercy. Her classes — and her magical abilities — have continued apace, teaching her to be deadlier than ever, but two years have brought her no closer to avenging her friend Hessa or recovering the convent’s prized Ship Heart. Instead, Nona once again finds herself facing more typical schoolgirl problems such as sneering bullies and difficult exams. But just as it seems that her adventuring days might be behind her, she finds herself caught up in the long-gestating plans of the Empire’s most canny political schemers.
As usual, Mark Lawrence is a very elegant writer, clever with imagery and interiority of character. He conjures Nona with an assured hand, and crafts her friends and mentors with equal verve. The fight scenes are pulse-pounding and Lawrence’s mastery of suspense often kept me reading (well, listening — I chose audiobook) well into the night. To put it another way, this is not Lawrence’s first rodeo, and so far as craft elements go, he’s a very able stylist. His words do exactly what he wants them to, and the writing is sharper and cleaner for it.
So yes, prose, dialogue and characterization are good, and the pacing is sharp and rapid-fire. The plot, however, is something of a mixed bag. To begin with the positives, I think the overall story here is stronger than in the previous installment. Grey Sister covers a shorter span of time than did Red Sister, and consequently feels more focused. The build-up to the finale is stronger this time around too, and the last battle is a great example of action-adventure storytelling.
The trouble arrives in the more minor brushwork on Lawrence’s canvas, the little details. As in his earlier series, RED QUEEN’S WAR, Red Sister contains a few story points that — while exciting and well described — don’t entirely hang together. For instance, the first time a character is seconds from death only to be rescued by an ally appearing from nowhere, it’s a fun eucatastrophe. By the fifth time this happens, it looks more like a narrative crutch. Similarly, while there’s a lot of material involving characters running around and trying to fix a desperate situation, there’s not actually much in the way of anyone planning things out or weighing the options before jumping into said desperate situation. This would be fine if it felt purposeful, but often it seemed more like Lawrence was just maneuvering his characters into the next set-piece by any means necessary, and then trusting his ingenuity to get them out the other side. This sometimes leads to plot holes that Lawrence is forced to retroactively patch, or to unlikely coincidence.
Overall, though, Grey Sister is a fun and thrilling read, a worthy successor to Red Sister. The plot could perhaps have benefited from more outlining, but the charm of the writing and characters makes up for any smaller deficiencies in the narrative.
As a final note, I listened to this novel on audiobook (Recorded Books), and highly recommend it. Heather O’Neill does fantastic work as narrator, and I think I’ll hear her version of Nona’s voice even if I switch to print in future.