Holy Sister (2019), the third and final book in Mark Lawrence‘s BOOK OF THE ANCESTOR series, is a satisfying, well-crafted ending to an inventive series. Lawrence, at this point a veteran in the trenches of Heroic Fantasy, wraps things up with what’s probably his greatest assurance of the series, and though the tropes on display will be familiar to fans of the genre (and of Lawrence’s earlier work), they add up to an engaging and often thrilling finale.
But before we get into the meat of things, a quick synopsis: when last we left Nona and her friends, they were on the run from their enemies with a stolen shipheart. Lawrence recommences the narrative years later, but recounts the details of the escape in a succession of quick, deft flashbacks. In the present day, the usual schoolgirl skullduggery quickly gives way to the final battle, in which Nona must bring all of her considerable talents to bear in order to keep her friends alive (and save the world, if she has time).
Of the trilogy, Holy Sister is probably my favorite. The plot is clean and direct, and I feel that Lawrence’s characterization of Nona has improved with the series, so that I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in her head this time around. She’s definitely your typical tall, dark, and brooding type, but Lawrence finds a balance between showing us what a powerful action hero she’s become and also depicting the underlying vulnerabilities that humanize her. The result is Nona (aka Sister Cage) at her series best, cool enough to get the blood pumping and human enough to elicit sympathy. The rest of the central cast is a lot of fun, though I will say that for being such an introvert, Nona’s blessed with a surprisingly wide social circle. Ara and Zole were readily memorable to me from last year’s Grey Sister, but I had a tougher time recollecting what Ruli’s deal was. That said, the character resolutions are handled with subtlety and warmth, and I particularly enjoyed the delicate touch Lawrence uses in sketching out the relationship between Nona and Ara.
So far as plotting goes, Lawrence restricts himself to a solid, straightforward storyline that serves the book well. I did feel, however, that the flashbacks and final battle averaged out as more inventive material than the stuff occurring back at the convent, where Lawrence leans pretty hard on the usual Nona/Joeli cycle of sabotage to keep the suspense going. Nona also makes a few decisions toward the end that feel a smidge like plot necessity nudging her along, but it’s arguable either way and overall just a nitpick. In fact, the only really firm criticism I can level at Holy Sister — which is at the end of the day a very clean and well-written novel — is that it’s not breaking much new ground… at least it’s not from a certain perspective.
To clarify, the BOOK OF THE ANCESTOR series in general (with Holy Sister probably the strongest example) is at once familiar and refreshing. Familiar in that Lawrence hews close to typical tropes, but refreshing in that Lawrence did it with an all-female cast and managed to stick the landing. This may not seem like a big deal, but I’ve seen many, many, many attempts at the “distaff heroic fantasy” idea, and it’s rare that they’re this successful in this way. I’m of two minds about the result.
On the one hand, it’s an inescapable fact that Lawrence’s fans will have seen some or most of these ideas before. Nona is a tall, muscular hero with spooky eyes and a tragic backstory. She’s a reckless but gifted warrior with a good heart and intense loyalty to her friends, and she’s surrounded by a group of colorful buddies and eccentric teachers. Joeli, her school rival, is a blonde, vindictive jerk from a rich family. Abbess Glass, effectively the headmistress, is a wise parental figure who always knows best and has a plan for every eventuality. And while I don’t want to spoil Lawrence’s other series, he has a tendency toward a particular solution for whatever environmental hazard threatens his world. A similar solution plays a part in Holy Sister. For better or worse, the trilogy seems largely content to be just another bread-and-butter Heroic Fantasy narrative, which could be disappointing for some readers.
But on the other hand, it’s also true that BOOK OF THE ANCESTOR feels fresh in one very specific way: it’s one of the cleanest distaff turns that I’ve ever seen. Many authors try to do a “traditionally masculine story — but with women,” but few of them fully commit. The heroine ends up running to a sympathetic man for help in the clutch, or she spends more of the story struggling against sexism than against the nominal villain. There’s a sense that one has to reflect more classically female struggles, which necessarily leads to adapting existing motifs into something that looks quite different. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but neither do I think there’s anything wrong with seeing what a classically male story looks like with a woman in the starring role, unfettered by cultural expectations of feminine roles. This is speculative fiction, after all, and for all the need to confront gender disparities, it’s also valuable to speculate on worlds where they simply aren’t as much of a factor.
In the end, it’s up to the individual reader to decide how heavily to weigh these factors. Holy Sister is not a perfect novel, and it’s definitely not straying too far from the typical Heroic Fantasy archetype, but it does offer readers a valuable bit of speculation. And all else aside, it’s also a fast-paced and well-written finale to a fun series that ends on a very satisfactory note.