by Mark Lawrence, Book of the Ancestor #1
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.
But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.
Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…
I adored this series. The worldbuilding, the magic, the characters. I'll go more in depth below, but this is a fantasy series like I've never seen before. The writing is fantastic, the characters well-developed, and an ending you'll try to guess at, but won't see coming. This is one of maybe three books I've read where I've been hooked from the first line.
Reasons to Read
#1 The 90% Female Cast
I have never, never read a book, let alone a series of books, where the majority of the cast are woman and girls. This series follows Nona Grey from childhood into her late teen years at the Sweet Mercy Convent, an all-girls school/church/badass-warrior-training-camp.
There are only a handful of male characters that are either a) the bad guys, b) the show-off Academy boys (the all-boys magical school), or c) try-hard love interests that Nona honestly couldn't care less about (and it's fantastic)! Literally, every other character are women. Nona's friends, teachers, mentors, even some of her enemies. And they are all diverse in appearance, values, age, etc.
#2 The Worldbuilding
The worldbuilding in this series was so in-depth, yet vague in an honest, practical way. There is a history to this world that is unknown to both the characters and the reader and it makes it that much more intriguing. I found myself more than once pondering what came before, what really happened to their world - alongside the characters. The setting itself is somewhat typical for fantasy media: think Game of Thrones, Hogwarts, etc. But the history, the realization that there are events that happened millennia ago that are still impacting the current story.
The only other piece of media I've seen that has such a compelling history (in that we know very little, but want to know more) is Alita: Battle Angel. I saw the movie in theatres way before the pandemic and fell in love instantly. The same occurred with the Book of the Ancestor Trilogy. It makes me think about our own history, Earth's history, about all the things we'll never know from the past, or the future.
#3 The Magic
The magic system in this is so different from what I'm seen before. Basically there are four "bloods" that determine which kind of physical trait you might present and thus, what type of magic you may be able to learn and perform.
For example Hunska bloods are known for their speed and typically have dark hair and eyes. Others are stronger, can learn magic easier, are rarer, or have shorter life spans. There's no limit to how magic can impact and affect the lives of these characters. This magic system has inspired me within my own writing to stretch the limits of magic in fiction and how they can work, or present in people.
#4 Nona Grey
As far as main characters go, Nona was the first hero I've read where I didn't always agree with their decisions, they didn't always win or succeed, they made mistakes, and suffered the consequences of their actions.
Ultimately, they are still the hero, and they win in the end (surprise!) but you can so clearly see the character development through each book. Nona learns about the Ancestor, the ways of Sweet Mercy, her values shift, her beliefs, her mindset. She's definitely one of the more compelling characters I've read.
#5 The Side Characters
Now I don't want to give away too much, but there are characters in this series that are side characters, part of the "friend group," but each and each and every one has their own backstory, their own beliefs and behaviours. Even Nona sometimes seems like a side or background character when others are in the spotlight. It kind of reminds me of how Zuko, rom Avatar: The Last Airbender, displayed the characteristics of what we normally associate a main character with, but Aang was the actual focus of the story.
In no particular order: blood, gore, torture, grief, loss, violence, war, kidnapping, bullying, death of a child, queer character death, child abuse, parental abandonment, death, animal abuse, murder, human trafficking, suicide (source).
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