Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

I often find it difficult to separate a sequel from the previous book.

It is perhaps unfair that a lot of books are described as “good, but not as good as book 1”. It’s a comparison that begs to be made, and yet I feel like sometimes it hampers our enjoyment.

The beginning of a story is often allowed space to breathe. Preconceptions are kept to a minimum, and there are few comparisons to be made. The characters feel new and fresh. The plot can seem original and exciting. We allow ourselves to be transported into a world that we’ve never seen before, and we can appreciate everything for what it is, rather than what it isn’t.

But then that second book comes along, and it is afforded none of this luxury.

The second book has to deal with expectation.

I expected Grey Sister to be a different type of book. I expected Nona Grey to be the same girl that she had been. I was wrong, and it was wrong of me to come into the book with those expectations.

In Red Sister, Nona was a fascinating contrast between vulnerability and violent competence. She was a crystal dagger; sharp, but fragile. Her vulnerabilities, and her desire for something as simple as a friend, made for an endearing and relatable character.

By Grey Sister, Nona has grown up – if only by a couple of years. Those vulnerabilities are still there, but she hides them in the way in which children learn to as they grow. Her talent for violence is more apparent, and you no longer fear for Nona so much as you fear what Nona will do to those who wrong her.

The result is a different kind of story.

Whereas Nona’s character was at the forefront of Red Sister, I found Grey Sister to have a larger focus on developing the world and furthering the plot.

Lawrence finds a great balance between unravelling old mysteries and proposing new questions. We learn more about the world. The motivations of both friends and foe become clear. Yet by the end I was still asking enough questions to hook me for the final book in the trilogy.

New characters are introduced and old characters step forward. We learn more about Abbess Glass and Sister Kettle, with each afforded a few intriguing and exciting chapters from their perspective. Glass’s story in particular is very interesting, as she fights a battle of influence against Sherzal – sister of the emperor and puppeteer of the inquisition.

Joeli and Keot are the most prominent of the new additions.

Joeli is a mean-girls-esque novice at the convent. The kind of character who uses words like “peasant”, has a rich and powerful family, and an entourage of minions. What she has above the average school-bully is her talent with the magic of the Path.

Keot is a “devil”. He is a shadow creature that lives under Nona’s skin. He is a voice inside her head. If Nona’s control slips, Keot is able to take advantage of body parts such as her hand or her tongue. He constantly implores Nona to commit acts of violence, begging her to kill whoever happens to be in the vicinity at that moment.

Both characters are significant in that they are antagonists that can’t be fought with tooth or claw. Nona is too competent, the vulnerability she had in Red Sister no longer as prominent. I didn’t really buy that she would ever be in any real danger in a fight. But I could absolutely buy that she could be manipulated – mentally, verbally, or magically. As such, I consider the inclusion of these characters to be a very clever bit of writing by the author.

Grey Sister is an exciting story featuring secret assassins, schoolyard bullying, political conspiracies, a dying planet, and a quest for vengeance. It was not the heart-wrenching tale of friendship and loss that I’d expected, but then I never should have expected that in the first place.

Not just a good sequel, but a good book on its own merit.

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