Book Review: Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence

Title: Holy Sister

Author:  Mark Lawrence

Publisher: Ace

Publication Date: February 25, 2020

Genres: Grimdark Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted

I seem to have a middle-book (and movie) fetish, often preferring those dark, penultimate story arcs over the eventual climax. As much as I did enjoy Holy Sister, and thought it had some amazing scenes, the Book of the Ancestor is another saga that peaked, for me, with Grey Sister.

Part of what bothered me in this final book is the dual-narrative format Mark Lawrence employs, flipping back-and-forth between Present Day and Three Years Earlier. That’s a device that rarely works for me, serving more as a distraction that tempers any narrative tension, rather than as one that keeps the reader dually engaged. I understand why he did it, and the format does allow for the clever reveal of a few half-truth assumptions in the latter chapters, but it kept me at a distance from the overall story.

Another part of what bothered me – perhaps even more than the dual narrative – is the shift to a single POV. Yes, Nona was always our primary POV, but the first two books had key scenes and that we saw through other character’s eyes, and their perspective gave events meaning. Losing those other POVs mean far too much happens off-the-page, with both triumphs deaths reduced to factual statements devoid of all emotion. Compounding that issue, Nona becomes something of an unreliable narrator here, holding things back for dramatic purposes that it doesn’t seem natural for her to omit, further straining the narrative.

Make no mistake, there is a lot to love about Holy Sister. The resolution of the whole Chosen One trope with Nona & Zole was well done, with a few red herrings and a linguistic twist that I quite appreciated. I thoroughly enjoyed the caper aspect of the story, with the way Lawrence graduated the novices through their forbidden actions, having one play into the other. As far as pleasant surprises go, Sister Pan seemingly coming out of nowhere to kick some serious ass may have been the highlight of the climax. In terms of payoff, all the talk of shiphearts, Arks, and the moon actually comes to something, and even if it didn’t pay off as I hoped/expected, there was a significant payoff. Oh, and in the made-me-smile category, Kettle & Apple stop being alluded to as a naughty secret and get actual on-the-page acknowledgement as a passionate, loving couple!

Having said all that, I need to bitch about some things, and they’re 100% spoilers, but feel free to highlight-and-reveal if you’re so inclined.

  • Abbess Glass dies off the page, and we never get an answer as to how/why? Seriously?
  • After all her betrayals, we’re just going to quietly leave Joeli to her schemes, and then act surprised when things fall apart because of her? Really?
  • With her role in the last book and her establishment as a key antagonist, that’s all we get with Sherzal? And that’s how she ends? Come on!
  • Her love for Kettle having just been validated, Sister Apple dies off-the-page? That’s just too much. They deserved better.
  • After all the suggestions about Nona & Ara, where the hell does the Regal romance come in? And are we supposed to then cheer for Ara as a consolation prize . . . one lamely hinted at with a handclasp rather than validated with a kiss? Nope. Sorry.

I realize I’m sounding very critical of a book I mostly enjoyed, but Grey Sister was so good, and Holy Sister had so much potential, it’s a shame a few bad choices and some poor execution dragged it down. A good book, a solid book, but not the book I was waiting for.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀

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