Warning: This review contains spoilers for Red Sister and Grey Sister.
They came against her as a child. Now they face the woman.
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.
And so it’s time for me to say goodbye to Nona and Sweet Mercy. I held off reading Holy Sister for over a month after I received it, in the way we do when we want to both have our cake and eat it too. But was the having better than the eating?
I haven’t quite decided.
And by that, I don’t mean that Holy Sister was a disappointment (far from it), more that as much as I had anticipated the conclusion, I wasn’t quite ready for it to be over. And Lawrence novels, I have discovered, tend to be over quickly. They have a page-turning quality that means you blink and 50 pages have passed, like picking up a pack of cookies and munching your way through half of it without even noticing.
This time we follow Nona through two timelines: one picks up where we left off at the end of Grey Sister, the nuns fleeing with a shipheart in tow. The other takes place three years later (each chapter is clearly marked with which timeline we’re in) in Nona’s present day. We spend some time jumping between these timelines, at first unsure of how everything connects, but one thing that they have in common is that the situation is desperate. The Scithrowl are pressing forward in overwhelming numbers, having apparently sent an army of sufficient size. The corridor continues to narrow. Nona and Zole must protect the shipheart at all costs, but what will the costs be? Inner demons boil to the surface and characters behave in questionable ways – but are their strings being pulled, and if so, who’s doing the pulling?
Lawrence has woven mystery after mystery into this epic conclusion, and he does an admirable job of keeping us guessing. Reveals in one timeline tie into questions we have about the other, and back and forth we go until everything is laid bare. It’s a clever method of storytelling which allows for character development to be done quickly and efficiently while also keeping a tight focus on the plot. Lawrence is a master of conveying a sense of urgency, and the breakneck pacing combined with what appear to be insurmountable odds for our heroines mean that we’re given little breathing room. Nona has reached adulthood at last, but for all her hot-headed posturing and bravado she remains, at heart, an anxious girl who loves easily and fears abandonment. Whether this will prove to be an asset or her greatest weakness (or perhaps both?) is something we’ll discover within these pages. The lessons that Nona has learned from each of her teachers will come into play, and not just in the form of fighting skills: Sister Apple’s lessons in caution, Wheel’s unshakable faith, Abbess Glass and her aptitude for the long game… it’s a remarkable conclusion to a well constructed tale, in which all the seeds planted over the previous two books come to glorious fruition.
The last third of the book is everything you would expect and yet at the same time, not at all what I anticipated. Without getting into too much detail, it was precisely as violent and bloody as it needed to be, and compounded with love, loss, and hope.
Perhaps most fittingly, it is the kind of ending that kindles a sweet but painful ache in one’s chest, not unlike the memory of a loved one no longer with us.
Sincere thanks to Mark Lawrence and Berkley Publishing for the ARC of Holy Sister.
Bingo Squares 2018
- Reviewed on r/Fantasy
- Features a Mountain Setting