As a lifelong fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust trilogies (only 2 books out so far in the latter series), I was excited to hear that the BBC was doing a television adaptation of the first book: The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the 2007 movie. I was disappointed in the interference and the “controversies,” which led to the movie having significant scenes of the story cut from the movie. Fans of the series suffered from this poor adaptation of the book. Now, the wait has been worth it (so far) as we get the adaptation that matches both the mood and the tone of the series—His Dark Materials.
The opening scene is from the book—La Belle Sauvage—well, the end of it anyway, when baby Lyra Belaqua is brought to Jordan College by her uncle, Lord Asriel. 12 years later, Lyra runs the routes, the roofs, and the passages of the college with her daemon, Pantalaimon, and her friend, Roger. Meanwhile, Lord Asriel has made a breakthrough in his research up in the far North, and he has returned to Jordan College to give an update to the scholars, and to ask for more funding to continue his research.
Meanwhile, the Gyptians, a community of people who make their living on the sea, have been the victims of the Gobblers, a mysterious group who have been going around kidnapping children. You do NOT want to mess with the Gyptians because they work together to protect their own. After Lord Asriel leaves, Lyra gets another visitor, Mrs. Coulter—a “buffer” between the Magisterium and Jordan College. Her interest in Lyra is unknown, but when she tells Lyra that she wants to take Lyra to the North with her, Lyra agrees. However, it is when Roger disappears that Lyra sees the opportunity as a chance to save her friend.
“Lyra’s Jordan” is an amazing introduction to the miniseries. Readers will appreciate the inclusion of what was omitted from the movie—characterization, world-building, conflict, etc.—while viewers who are not as familiar with the series will be able to follow along with the story that is being told in this episode. Unlike the movie, the TV show sticks with the grittiness of the story and the ends some of the characters are willing to go to in order to justify the means. The cast of actors not only present the characters as they are in the books, but also they put enough of themselves within them that they stand apart from the actors who played them previously.
This episode presented us with the microcosm that Lyra is leaving behind. This is crucial because the audience realizes that Lyra has been sheltered from the governmental influence of the Magisterium and the dangers both orphan and outcast children experience. The events of “Lyra’s Jordan” starts the coming-of-age journey Lyra will have now until the end of the series. As Lyra learns more about her world, so will the audience. For now, this episode is the beginning of a transcending bildungsroman.
Lessons were over. The closed world of the convent was about to be broken open. The endgame had arrived, (Chapter 9).
Any literary series—whether or not they’re duologies, trilogies, quartets, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 15 books—follow similar formats in order to bring the story to a close. In many cases, the ending has a “good” ending for the remaining characters—and the dedicated readers. And yet, there are times when a “believable” ending is what is required for certain stories to have appropriate resolutions for everyone. Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence provides a “believable,” yet satisfying ending for the characters and the readers alike. All of the characters have an ending.
Nona Grey—our protagonist—is now around 19 years-old and is preparing for her examinations in Holy Class in order to become a nun at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. A lot has happened since the events in Grey Sister including: the escape from Sherzal’s Palace, the war that’s occurring on two fronts in Abeth, and Nona’s growth spurt. Through it all, Nona not only has to prepare for war (which, she is more than ready for), but also has to keep the promises she made to her friends and to her mentors. Nona matures throughout this novel as well. She is about to leave her teenaged years (but, NOT her adolescence) and she is making choices that will have a long-term effect on not just herself but everyone else, similar to Abbess Glass’ choices. At the same time, readers and Nona learn more about Zole (finally) and her ambitions. Zole is an ice-triber who was “found” be Sherzal and educated by her before attending Sweet Mercy. She was declared to be the “Chosen One” by Sherzal (and by Sister Wheel) at the time. While Zole did prove to be a 4-blood and very powerful, she never said she had plans to remain at Sweet Mercy beyond her education. Through Nona, we learn about Zole, her ambitions, and her culture. Zole does call herself Nona’s friend and she proves that to her over and over again. Both girls learn from each other and grow in both their powers, and their character. By the time the friends go their separate ways, we learn more about Zole and Nona, their roles in the prophecy, and their ambitions for themselves and all of Abeth.
There are 2 plots in Holy Sister. The first, Nona, the nuns and her friends—the other novices and her “cage mates”—are preparing to fight in the war that is moving closer and closer towards them. The second, follows Nona and Zole as they continue their escape from Sherzal’s Palace, with the Noi-Guin shipheart, immediately after the events of Grey Sister 3 years earlier. While in Holy Class, Nona gathers her friends in order to steal a book containing secrets about the 4 shiphearts, the Ark, and the prophecy of the “Chosen One.” However, the novices are not alone in seeking this book and the information within it. In addition, neither Nona, nor readers have forgotten about Sherzal, Lano Tacsis, Joeli Namsis, the Noi-Guin, Yisht, and Queen Adoma. Once again, grudges and ambitions take precedence over the problems at hand. The question is, who will be the victor as the war rages around them? Meanwhile, 3 years prior, Nona and Zole are leading the Noi-Guin away from the others who survived the assault on Sherzal’s Palace. With the Noi-Guin shipheart in their possession, the “Argatha” and her “Shield” make their way towards the Ice—where the ice-tribers, including Zole, reside. Throughout the escape, Nona learns about Zole, the ice tribes, and the shiphearts. Nona learns where Zole fits into everything that has happened at Sweet Mercy, and the power of the shiphearts. These two plots present the growth of the characters and the on goings in Abeth. At the same time, there are two subplots. One is Abbess Glass’ continued influence and plans for the endgame; two is the prophecy of the “Chosen One” and its interpretation and its (true) meaning. Both plots and both subplots converge into this final moment in Nona’s education. Everything fits together as the plot hits the climax and moves towards the resolution. Everything moves at an appropriate rate and all is revealed in due time.
The narrative is limited omniscient narration—only from Nona’s point-of-view—with a sequence that moves from “Present Day” to “3 Years Earlier.” Nona Grey is out reliable narrator as she continues on her journey to fulfill her role in the war (and in the prophecy). Her stream-of-consciousness goes from the war to the escape (which, is told in present tense) and her powers determine where and what Nona witnesses and experiences. At first, readers will wonder as to why the story is being told from one point in time to another one, but what Nona experiences in both narratives determine her actions as the war reaches its climax. Once this is realized, then the narrative can be followed easily.
The style Mark Lawrence uses changes slightly from what readers have gotten used to, but it remains relevant to the story he is telling. The prophecy and its interpretation and its meaning continues, but the significance and the importance of playing the endgame for the long run is essential in this story as well. Readers already know that the prophecy will come to pass in Holy Sister, but how will it affect the other characters? The author reminds his readers that prophecies and war focus on one event in particular, while ambitions last beyond the short term. Behind the frontlines, each character is thinking about what they will do if they survive the war and whether or not the prophecy comes to pass. The mood is war and what it brings with it; the tone is the choices individuals make as a result of war. And, the choices are not always for the good of all of the denizens. Power determines the victor in most wars, but once the war is over, what happens next? This is the importance of the endgame. Planning before and during should being a reasonable after in the long run.
The appeal of Holy Sister matches those in the rest of the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, positive and satisfying. Mark Lawrence has delivered a trilogy with magic, history and action alongside strong, yet flawed female characters. This series is an amazing addition to the fantasy genre, and Nona Grey is right alongside Alanna of Trebond and Lyra Belacqua as resilient and powerful female characters who proved themselves against all perceived notions against them. The popularity of this series has given readers a surprise from the author. Readers will get the chance to return to Abeth when The Girl and the Stars, the first book in the Book of the Ice is released in April 2020.
Holy Sister is satisfying end to the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. Both the plot and the characters are given reasonable and believable ends to their stories. The pacing and the world-building provide answers to the questions the characters and the readers had previously. Fans of fantasy and grimdark will enjoy the conclusion to this series. Mark Lawrence presents another brilliant series.