Readers and writers often describe novels as being character driven or plot driven. If there is such a thing, then Holy Sister, the third volume in Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor trilogy, is setting driven. The problem that drives the story’s conflict, as revealed in the earlier volumes as well, is that the focus moon is no longer able to hold back planet Abeth’s ice crust from closing in on the Corridor of habitable land that it keeps warm. People living near the encroaching miles-high ice walls are losing land and are forced to migrate into other people’s land, which causes the main conflict of the story, war. On the surface it sounds simple, but Lawrence’s extremely creative, dense world-building and his attention to the most minute details make Holy Sister a tour-de-force of speculative fiction writing.
Holy Sister begins where Grey Sister ends, after Zole has saved the nuns and some other folks in their escape from Sherzal’s palace. Zole and Nona take the shipheart they retrieved from Sherzal’s palace and part from the rest of the escaping company so the others will not be followed by Sherzal’s guard and the powerful Noi-Guin warriors. The two girls flee to Zole’s ice-bound home, and we finally get to experience the beautiful and forbidding ice that is much talked about in the earlier novels. Meanwhile, a parallel narrative in not-quite-alternating chapters, shows Nona and the sisters of Sweet Mercy, three years later, preparing for a big, violent showdown with Sherzal and the approaching, massive armies of the Scithrowl and the Durn that are closing in on the empire. Somehow, our hero, Nona Grey, must get the shipheart from the narrative in the past to the narrative in the present (that’s supposed to be funny), join it with the others in the Ark, and save the empire. It’s a helluva ride.
Yes, Nona also must complete her quest to become a full Sister of Sweet Mercy. Yes, she must rely on her friends to help her in every aspect of her quests because that is the main theme of the whole trilogy, in the opinion of this reviewer. Yes, there are many plot twists, awesome fights (including the opening scene), emotional moments, love relationships, character turns, pithy quotes, and lessons learned. And yes, if you’re reading this you will probably read lots of reviews describing these elements of this novel and the climax of this trilogy. For me, though, the most astounding thing about the Book of the Ancestor is the absolutely mind-blowing world-building. I can’t think of another example of world-building that even compares, so I hope you won’t mind if I write about that. (It’ll also help me avoid spoilers.)
Throughout my reading of Holy Sister, I wondered (and still wonder) if Lawrence created the world with all its settings, its magic, and its dying moon before he created the characters who populate it. It seems possible that Abeth’s diminishing Corridor between its encroaching ice crusts and the dying focus moon that causes Abeth’s peoples to go to war against one another could have been the idea that generated the story, which then generated the characters. Similarly, the shiphearts, the powerful magical stones that are required to use the Ark, which may or may not control the moon, could have been part of that initial idea. A writer, especially one of Lawrence’s caliber, could take those ideas and populate a story in a million different ways. But as if that weren’t enough, Lawrence gives us a world of magic that has layer upon layer of nuance, rules, abilities, and incredibly imaginative concepts, all with unique names within the story world that make all these things seem entirely natural to the characters. There is the continuing effect on the characters of the four bloods — hunska, quantal, marjal, and gerant – inherited from Abeth’s original immigrant settlers that imbue the characters with speed, magic, empathy, and size/strength, respectively. There is the “work” the characters can do, based on their special abilities. Thread-work allows them to create deadly traps, but also to communicate and even attack each other through the equivalent of extrasensory perception. Rock-work, water-work, ice-work, etc., allow the characters to manipulate the world around them. There are sigils and trances and serenity and the path, all of which protect and strengthen the characters. Ring portals, new in Holy Sister, can transport characters hundreds of miles. Devils live in the poisonous black ice, possess the story’s characters and influence their thoughts, which becomes an important predicament at the climax of the novel. The characters can inhabit one another’s bodies and see through each other’s eyes (a helpful trick if you’re writing a story with only one point-of-view character). At one point a nun just blows herself up like a suicide bomber, blasting a whole host of enemy soldiers into tiny fragments. Nona has deadly blades that extend from her fingers in any size necessary and can even be extended from other characters’ bodies she inhabits. She can practically take on whole armies by herself; hence one of the trilogies most memorable quotes: “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.” In fact, Nona is so powerful, I was not sure she couldn’t just blow a massive hot fart that would melt the ice back for hundreds of miles. But alas…
The ending of Holy Sister is as poignant as you might expect if you’ve read the earlier two books. Not only is there the expected massive convergence of powers and armies and world-building, but there is also the full development of the characters’ relationships and arcs and the achievement of faith that is the foundation of the nuns’ existence. And some important characters die, which always helps make a story great and emotionally compelling.
If you’ve read Red Sister and Grey Sister, then you’ll read Holy Sister and love it. I give you my personal guarantee. If you haven’t read the first two Books of the Ancestor, what the hell is your problem? The series is truly a masterwork of speculative fiction writing the likes of which is rarely achieved. Lawrence is a frigging genius. And even though The Book of the Ancestor is not my favourite of his works, it is still most likely his greatest achievement as a speculative fiction writer. I can’t even imagine how he could write a book like this in a year. It just blows my tiny mind.
Holy Sister is scheduled for publication in the US by Ace on April 9, 2019.