Holy Sister (Book of the Ancestor #3) by Mark Lawrence
Published by Ace Books
Release Date : April 4th 2019
Nona Grey’s story reaches its shattering conclusion in the third instalment of Book of the Ancestor.
The ice is advancing, the Corridor narrowing, and the empire is under siege from the Scithrowl in the east and the Durns in the west. Everywhere, the emperor’s armies are in retreat.
Nona faces the final challenges that must be overcome if she is to become a full sister in the order of her choice. But it seems unlikely that Nona and her friends will have time to earn a nun’s habit before war is on their doorstep.
Even a warrior like Nona cannot hope to turn the tide of war.
The shiphearts offer strength that she might use to protect those she loves, but it’s a power that corrupts. A final battle is coming in which she will be torn between friends, unable to save them all. A battle in which her own demons will try to unmake her.
A battle in which hearts will be broken, lovers lost, thrones burned.
HOLY SISTER completes the Book of the Ancestor trilogy that began with RED SISTER and GREY SISTER. A ground-breaking series, it has established Mark Lawrence as one of the most exciting new voices in modern speculative fiction.
“Moons might rise and fall, empires wax and wane, even the stars come and go, but there are constants too, and though the story of our kind is ever-changing it is also always the same.”
*SPOILERS FROM PREVIOUS BOOKS (RED SISTER, GREY SISTER)*
Holy Sister is the last book and the conclusion to one of my most favourite series I’ve read in 2020. I have an intimate relationship with this series, there are many things and many moments in the series that blew me away. Red Sister is the book that gave me the push to read more adult fantasy books and Mark Lawrence, the author, is the one that convince me to make a blog. Nona Grey as a character has grown to be one of my favorite female leads. Her growth is realized so vividly and each milestone she reaches is triumphant. The journey that has come from these last 316 pages with Nona Grey is bittersweet and yet beautiful. I’ve grown attached to Nona and all the characters in Book of the Ancestor and I am excited to see the conclusion to a such phenomenal series.
All the events in the last two books have built up to this last epic stand. In Red Sister, Nona is a little girl trapped in Giljohn’s cage that is going to be sold in Verity, the capital of the empire. She is rescued by Abbess Glass of the Sweet Mercy convent to be taken in as novice. Nona displays talents and the skills to become the best sister that Sweet Mercy that has come across in a long time. Abbess Glass and the other sisters of Sweet Mercy: Sister Apple, Sister Tallow, Sister Pan, Sister Wheel, Sister Rule, Sister Rule, Sister Kettle, and many more; have cared and taught Nona to hone her full potential as a three blood, as she has marjal, hunska, and quantal powers. Setting aside these abilities, Nona’s core power is her compassion and love for her friends. In the final battle, Nona tries her best to save all of her friends but her powers are limited. Sweet Mercy loses the shipheart, an artifact left by the Ancestors that helps to amplify magical abilities, and they lose Hessa, a novice who was Nona’s best friend.
These events in Red Sister left Nona grief stricken and fuming with vengeance. In Grey Sister, two years after Hessa’s death, Nona graduates to Grey class. There she is joined by Zole and Darla; once rivals to Nona, now friends. Nona is obsessed with finding out what happened to Hessa and is persistently trying to enter the under caves of Sweet Mercy. In the end, she reaches the place where Hessa died and she is trapped by no other than Jolie Namsis, a novice in Grey class that despises Nona because of her talents and her bravery. The Tacsis family that is out to avenge the death of Raymel uses their power and position to trap Nona so she can be judged and executed under church law. Knowing Nona’s faith, Sister Kettle urges Nona to run away from Sweet Mercy. Not wanting to lose all her connections to Sweet Mercy, Nona weaved a shadow bond with Sister Kettle. On her journey, she is caught by the Noi Guin, a group of assassins hired by the Tacsis family to capture her. Sensing this through the shadow bond Sister Kettle tracks Nona and infiltrates the Noi Guin’s base to save her. Adjacent to these events, Abbess Glass is captured and brought before Sherzal, the emperor’s sister that is planning a coup. Sherzal’s plan is to bargain with the Queen Adoma of the Scithcrowl, the empire’s enemy, to combine multiple shiphearts together in order to control the moon. All hell breaks loose after Sherzal’s plans is uncovered. Ara, a novice of Sweet Mercy, uses her powers to rescue the Abbess from Sherzal. Nona and her party (Abbess Glass, Ara, Sister Kettle, Regol, and a few of the Sis Noblemen) all break out of the Sherzal’s burning palace.
In this last book, we follow two different timelines, present day Nona and past Nona escaping from Sherzal’s palace. Past Nona is trudging through the border into Scithrowl territory and into the corridors of the black ice with Zole and the shipheart. Zole’s presence in this book is more prominent and there’s more interaction between Nona and her. In Red Sister, Zole is Nona’s rival as her arrival into the convent created a huge fiasco. After the shipheart is stolen, Zole graduates into Grey class with Nona and slowly they grow closer. In Holy Sister, Zole continues to play an important part in the grand scheme of events. Present Nona is in Holy Class, preparing to take the tests that will decide which order she will vow to: Red, Grey, Mystic, or Holy. All the while, she is conspiring with her friends to infiltrate the High Priest’s vault and steal a forbidden tome. The current state of the world is dire as the Scithrowl horde is closing into the borders of Verity and they are advancing closer into the city. These dual timelines gives an insight into the epic convergence of plot and characters, seeing it finally realized in Holy Sister is truly breathtaking.
In previous books, the pace of the story starts and builds up slowly but not in Holy Sister. The few first chapters seems slow, but I was happy to see that the story takes a sharp turn and eventually gets the ball rolling. The events of this book have already been foreshadowed from the previous books, so when the ball started rolling it was REALLY rolling. Everything converged in a natural way, Mark Lawrence did not need to force the plot to work as if he was always leading up to this book. There are so many plot threads that the author presented in previous books that all come to fruition at the end. I will very likely reread the whole series to follow these threads from the start to the end. The action sequences in this book are unrelenting and explosive; the stakes of the siege on Verity is realized by the sheer size the of Scithcrowl horde. It is a battle of numbers, filled with action packed moments and cinematic deaths. Woven into the battle is a sense of dread that has been built up since Grey Sister, this dread feeds on the fear of the characters and it is deeply felt. They are fighting a hopeless battle but Mark Lawrence gives the reader hope through Nona, as the conflict will end with her regardless of its outcome.
The world building in all three books is intricate and unique. The books take place on Abeth, a planet orbiting a diminishing sun that is slowly being entombed by the ice. Abeth is orbited by an artificial moon that acts as a mirror to focus the sun rays on the ice. Much of the conflict on Abeth is fueled by displacement of civilization by the ever advancing ice. Verity, the capital of the empire, is surrounded by enemies that are closing into its borders; the Scithrowl to the east and the Sea of Marn to the West. Across the sea the Durns rule. This conflict also extends within the borders of Verity with many political powers trying to take advantage of the situation. One of the key locations within Verity is the Convent of Sweet Mercy, a place worship to the Ancestors filled with nuns who show their devotion in many ways. To become a sister of Sweet Mercy, one must endure a difficult training regiment where the novices are taught martial and spiritual prowess. For the empire, these nuns are their last hope.
Another thing about the series that is unique is the magic system. In this setting, people have specific powers based of their genetic lineage, as all people of Abeth are descendants of the Ancestors. The Ancestor lineage is broken up into four tribes (bloods), the Marjal, the Hunska, the Gerant, and the Quantal. Each of the four types of blood offer unique powers. These powers manifest with different intensities for every individual. Some may have only a touch of a blood, while some may be full bloods and have full control over the powers of a certain blood. Rarely, some may be multiple bloods and have control over the powers of multiple bloods, but it is very rare for one person to manifest all the four blood powers. Prophecy states that a child who manifests all the four bloods is destined to be the Argatha, one who is protected by a dedicated warrior known as the Shield. The Argatha is destined to save Abeth from the ice by wresting control of the moon by using ancient artifacts left by the Ancestors. These artifacts are known as the shiphearts, artifacts that can amplify the powers of the Ancestor. These shiphearts are double-edged swords however as the power they provide also corrupt the user. I admire the way the author incorporates balance into the magic system and how the shipheart can corrupt someone making them lose all of their humanity to become mere vessels of corruption. The magic system compared to other books connects to the lore of the world and adds to the plot, it isn’t mere tools for the characters to use in combat. It actually plays a bigger part of the world that is Abeth and the story of the Ancestors.
“But that was never the heart of Sweet Mercy. The shipheart wasn’t the foundation of the convent. It was always the faith. Always the notion that all men and women are our brothers and our sisters. And that faith doesn’t end with borders. It doesn’t care about heresies used to divide us, or whether you speak your prayers to a white star, or to the fields and forests and stones.”
The legend of the Argatha and the Shield is mentioned throughout Red Sister and Grey Sister. It is one of the pillars of faith for certain characters such as Sister Wheel. To become the Shield to the Argartha, one must pass the trials of the Shield. The Shield must succesfully protect the Argartha against any threat. Nona took this test in Red Sister and that is how she is named the Shield of the Argartha.
Nona Grey’s innocence and love for her friends is still the core of her as a character. Nona has gone through a series of horrible events that the author can easily have taken the direction of the story and written a corruption arc for Nona, but Mark Lawrence kept her foundations as a character. Nona has been taken advantage of and put down constantly throughout the three books but Nona’s loyalty, trust, and faith remains strong. I don’t know how many times I have said this but Nona Grey is one of the best protagonist I have come across, her character as a whole has left me shaken to my core. Mark Lawrence wrote her into existence in a very well thought out way like no other author I know. From Red Sister to Grey Sister and now Holy Sister, her growth is realized to its fullest and it wasn’t handed to her on a silver platter. She worked hard to become the powerful woman she is in Holy Sister.
Nona isn’t the only character that brings the story together, there are many characters that contributed into the plot and that adds a different point of view to the workings of subplots of the story. These point of views are present especially in Grey Sister, the second book to the series. We not only get to see a Nona’s POV but also Abbess Glass’ and Sister Kettle’s POV. What the author did do effortlessly is throughout the series is writing character interaction that feels distinct and layered. Each character bounce off of each others banter and comments that brings you into the dynamics they shared. For instance, the interaction between Nona and her friends (Ruli, Jula, Clera, Darla, Ara, Zole, Hessa). From book one to book three this group of friends lead by Nona has conspired and planned many schemes at Sweet Mercy. In the group each character plays a specific role, contributing and voicing their ideas. I would like to focus on three characters that became a pinnacle in fueling the growth of Nona and the story.
First, Hessa, she is a disabled girl that shared Giljohn’s cage with Nona. Hessa is a sweet girl and showed talent in thread work. Her life was cut short when Yisht stole the shipheart. Hessa’s death left Nona wounded and griefing. Because Hessa meant so much to Nona, the girl knew her before she came to Sweet Mercy. A reminder to Nona’s past as a child of the cage. From mourning Hessa’s death, Nona learned how to overcome the loss and learn that vengeance only leads to more vengeance in Grey Sister.
Second, Clera, the daughter of a bankrupt businessman and one of Nona’s first few friends at Sweet Mercy. Clera liked numbers and would do anything to be on the winning side as long as that side benefited her. Her sudden shift in alliances, going against her friends, didn’t change how Nona perceived of Clera. Their dynamic still holds even after all the years of they were apart and fighting on different sides. Nona still trust and has faith in Clera, she could’ve easily killed her but she didn’t. Nona didn’t let her disappointment cloud her judgment and gave Clera a chance in redeeming herself. Her relationship with Clera throughout the three books shows her growth as a character. How? Nona is a vengeful character especially if you cross her. Clera’s betrayal should’ve been the end of the relationship but it continued. This shows how Nona has learned to overcome her anger and grief by showing mercy.
Third, Zole, the ice triber and four blood. Nona’s relationship with Zole improved significantly after the events in Grey Sister. Their relationship started out as rivals, Zole is the Argartha that Nona despised at first. In the third book, Nona and Zole traveled together through the Corridor. Zole, an ice triber, with much experience on the ice lead their journey. During this journey, Zole’s personality and intentions are unraveled slowly. The build up for her character has been teased in the first two books. Zole plays a big part in shaping Nona’s decision making and maturity that we get to discover in this last book.
One relationship that is hinted since the first book is Nona’s relationship with Ara. Their relationship has developed so much since the first time they met. Like all of the people that first meets Nona, Ara disliked her and then grows an attachment to her. They were once paired as the Argatha, Ara, and the Shield, Nona. After Zole came to the convent the title of Argartha is passed to her. Ara and Nona stayed close even though the prophecy shifted to Zole, their bond transcends the prophecy. In Holy Sister witnessing them both taking their vows together and taking a new name together is heart warming. Ara taking her new name as Sister Thorn and Nona as Sister Cage. Nona always looked to Ara like a compass and I love the subtle loving interactions they have. Not to mention, Nona convinced the Abbess to leave Ara to defend the convent instead of joining the Red Sisters in battle. The affection they have for each other is beyond measure. They are cute together but also deadly, just like Sister Kettle and Sister Apple.
I would love to highlight the scene where Nona picks the order that she will vow to as a sister of Sweet Mercy. When she finally picks her colors the Abbess finally announced her new name, Sister Cage. My emotions couldn’t take it, I cried at work reading the lines. I kept reading it over and over because of how proud I am of Sister Cage. She has taken the name Cage because of her origins, a child trapped inside a cage that now stands as a Sister of Sweet Mercy.
Since starting Red Sister back in August, I am captivated by Mark Lawrence’s writing. The way Mark builds a story is detailed and meaningful. Every scene either progresses the plot, furthers character growth, or develops the world. Every interaction the protagonist has with any character has depth like no other writer could do. Each character has purpose and nearly all of the characters have left a lasting impression. They are very well fleshed out, each having their own voice and thoughts that can be vividly heard. Whenever a character makes a decision, their choice is never random or spontaneous. Abbess Glass played the long game and strategized her moves to be a step ahead of her enemies. The political drama in Abbess Glass’ arc is a relish to watch, the way Abbess Glass delivered her two cents in Grey Sister that shifted the balance of power in the plot is just *chefs kiss*. Personally, character development and relationships are very important to me as a reader.
I have already praised Mark Lawrence’s ability in writing relationships and characters in my review for Red Sister and Grey Sister(and here!). The relationships are much more complex and deeper with the possibility of death in this book because of the inevitable war. The main character and most of the side characters starts off the story fairly young but the tone of the book is very much adult. Not once did it feel like I was reading a young adult book, which is perfect for readers that want to read a coming of age story with a more mature tone. It doesn’t lack any angst that comes from a coming of age story and gives readers the experience of growing up together with the main character. This series is consistent and the quality of writing is equally prominent in all three books. Mark Lawrence wrote one of the best trilogies in the genre and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND for you to give this series a try.
Personally, I want to thank Mark Lawrence for writing such an amazing series and I can’t say it enough that this trilogy means so much to me as a reader. I will definitely pick it up again some time in the future and read all of Mark Lawrence’s other works.