Review: Holy Sister

Posted: April 4, 2019 by in Books We Like (4.4/5 single_star) Meta: Mark Lawrence, Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Endings are hard. In a way, endings can make or break a story, whether that’s referring to a chapter, a book, or even an entire series. Unlike some, I’m not one that ascribes to the opinion that the ending of a book will largely determine your opinion of a book. I’ve read plenty of great books with weak endings that I still enjoyed overall, and no matter how “awesome” an ending is, if the story up to that point is drawn out and boring… the ending won’t make up for the fact that everything else was drawn out and boring. But endings are still important. This book gave me a chance to not only finish consuming my first “Mark Lawrence” series, but also to look back on the series as a whole and decide what I thought about it. Honestly, I was a little surprised at what I found. As such, if you haven’t read the first two books in the series, you should probably do that instead of proceeding any further.

HOLY SISTER (Amazon) by Mark Lawrence is the final story in the Book of the Ancestor — a tale told largely through the eyes of one Nona Grey. GREY SISTER kind of left Nona and several of the nuns from the Convent of Sweet Mercy in a bit of a pickle. They’d just escaped from the clutches of the Emperor’s sister, Sherzal, and her clutch of Noi-Guin assassins, and were trying to get safely home. As a climax to that book, it was a pretty good one, and as the book ended shortly after the escape, I assumed that this meant everyone had made it back to the convent safely. Mission accomplished.

Oh, simple-minded me.

HOLY SISTER begins with a split between two different timelines, three years apart. The earlier timeline picks up immediately after GREY SISTER ends, with the ensuing chase from Sherzal’s palace. Nona and Zole had, after all, taken a shipheart from the catacombs within the Noi-Guin stronghold, and those are not treasures lost lightly. To help save the others from the soldiers pursuing the group, Nona and Zole take the shipheart and head for the ice. Meanwhile, three years later, Nona is trying to progress in her studies and figure out how to thwart Sherzal in her attempts to control the moon, while the enemy armies that have threatened invasion for the entire series are coming closer yet to fulfilling that threat.

As with my previous reading experience, I can only say that I loved ingesting this book just as much as I have his others. Lawrence uses a great mix of character and plot and world-building, along with these brilliant periodic statements of definitive and impactful truth, to weave a tale that is engaging and enlightening. As a story, this was a tale that I fully enjoyed, and I was impressed with where it ended in terms of the world and the characters. The pacing of the story was unrelenting, always moving toward a goal, with purpose and intent that I wish more books could share. The time spent on the ice was especially cool (no pun intended… okay, maybe a little one), and I could tell that he’d done his due diligence in preparing for the tale to finally reach this point. For the entire tale, the massive shelf of ice has been this implacable, ever-present force, but as of yet unexplored, and now that I’ve gotten a taste for its wastes and its secrets, I find myself even more excited for the next series Lawrence has planned in this world (Book of the Ice).

That being said, there were a couple really big things that bothered me about the delivery of this book. I don’t know that they necessarily impacted what I thought of the series as a whole, but they definitely impacted my thoughts about this book. If you’re worried about spoilers, you might want to skip this next paragraph. Although it won’t technically contain spoilers for the story (important details/events in the plot/characters), I know that some readers will still not want to hear what I have to say before reading the book themselves.

A continuation and ending to the tale of Nona Grey that elucidates more of the world of Abeth, and bring to a head all of Lawrence's worldbuilding within it

All clear? Okay, So my largest complaint about HOLY SISTER builds off of a criticism I also had for GREY SISTER. This being the concept of hiding information from the reader. There’s a moment fairly late in the book where we learn not only that Nona, the main POV of the book, has been hiding information and motivations of her own from we the readers, but from all of her friends at Sweet Mercy as well. And these aren’t details that could have been easily passed by during the main thrust of the first half of the novel. These are pivotal motivations of her own, information that is driving exactly the decisions and actions she’s taking, that we as readers just aren’t privvy to. And that includes taking in her character as if she didn’t have any of this information or motivations. Her story reads as if all of that was absent. This single point, no matter how small to some readers, is a huge sticking point for me, and essentially encapsulates the reason why I downgraded my rating to Like. I hate finding that information has been purposefully withheld from the story for any purpose whatsoever. For me, it’s a betrayal of trust that I’m experiencing what the character thinks and feels. Deep POV. On top of this, Nona’s motivations lead to her withholding information from her fellow sisters — her friends — and they react in such a way that it seems they were only mildly annoyed. It is one thing to be manipulated by an old woman with the political chops of a savant (Abbess Glass), but quite another to have to swallow such manipulation from one you call your friend. Both of these points hurt the story immensely in my mind.

The second issue I had was with Nona’s change in character. I didn’t feel that this time around we got to see why her character changed from one condition to another. Up to this point in the story (and this was perhaps reinforced by the cover images of the girl) Nona has been a scary, violent, and extremely capable individual that I’d never want to meet in a dark alley. But somewhere within the three years of story that we don’t get, Nona changes into something that has much more in common with Abbess Glass. Dangerous still, yes, but someone that makes decisions in a considerably different manner than the Nona that I’ve come to know.

In the end, this was definitely a book that I enjoyed, but there were a few pieces that really hurt my reading experience. I wouldn’t say that it was enough to keep me from being excited about Mark’s next books. I’m still excited. Maybe just not as much as I have been up to this point. Now that I’ve finished a Lawrence series, I realize just how desperately I need to catch up on his previous books and see what I’ve been missing.

  • Recommended Age: 18+ for violence
  • Language: Very little, but strong when it finally comes
  • Violence: Lots of death and blood and gore
  • Sex: Numerous references and instances of amorous noises (not audible to the reader)


  • Susanne Sayers says:

    The book left me mildly disappointed, although it is still a good book. I agree with your points. I would add that the prose is not up to the first two books. And I miss the build-ups (“It is important, when killing a nun, to …”). The importance of friendship to Nona – a point that we have gotten already from the very beginning – is hammered home several times here. There is a subtleness gone.

    It seems to me that this was done in a haste and with less time for editing than Red Sister and Grey Sister. Besides which there is a distinct feeling of ‘Hogwarts’ when the four novices try to steal a certain book, something less mature which is odd as they are now so much older and almost adult.

    It is a really impressive series and I love the worldbuilding and Nona, and I am happy enough with the conclusion as such, but had this been the first book I might not have wanted to read the follow-ups.

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