Why You Need to Read: “Holy Sister”

Book of the Ancestor: Book Three: Holy Sister

By: Mark Lawrence

Published: April 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Trilogy

            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. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “The Poppy War”

The Poppy War Series: Book 1: The Poppy War

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: May 1, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Folklore, and Military

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

            “Who are the gods? Where do they reside? Why do they do what they do? These are the fundamental questions of Lore. I can teach you more than ‘ki’ manipulation. I can show you the pathway to the gods. I can make you a shaman.”

            Gods and shamans? It was often difficult to tell when Jiang was joking and when he wasn’t, but he seemed genuinely convinced that he could talk to heavenly powers. 

            She was admittedly fascinated by myths and legends, and the way Jiang made them sound real.(Chapter 6).

            This debut novel caught my attention during one of my browsing visits to Barnes & Noble. My interest in this novel piqued when I read the synopsis of the book, and that fans of Katherine Arden would enjoy it, too. The Poppy Waris often described as a fantasy folklore historical military fiction novel, but it is so much more than that. Readers are treated to a blend of Chinese culture, memorable characters, and the horrors of war. 

            The protagonist of this novel, Runin Fang, or Rin, has readers comparing her to Harry Potter; but this story is NOT about an orphan who learns of his or her heritage and is given the opportunity to attend a school. Rin is an orphan of the last Poppy War who is raised by a family of opium dealers. Rin studies for the entrance exam to Sinegard—the most elite military school in the country—in order to escape poverty and an arranged marriage. When Rin is accepted into Sinegard, we meet her classmates: Kitay, Venka, Niang, Negha, Altan, etc.; her instructors including: Jiang, a shaman; and, the members of her Division. 

            The plot of The Poppy Warhas three parts: learning about war, going off to war, and surviving a war. Part I focuses on Rin’s acceptance and placement to Sinegard. I say placement because Rin and her classmates can get expelled or killed at any given moment during their time there. Rin has to deal with the prejudice surrounding her socioeconomic status as well. When she decides to study under Jiang—the Master of Lore—to become a shaman, Rin’s true education begins and her identity is revealed to her. 

            Part II is the beginning of the Third Poppy War. The Twelve Provinces and the Empress gather their soldiers for war, and this includes the instructors and the students from Sinegard. This reflects the reality of war in that the students at the military school go off to war. As the first battle takes place, Rin and her classmates experience the horrors of war, which was NOT taught to them in their classes. During this battle, Rin loses control of her shaman abilities. To the horror of her comrades, commanders and Empress she helps secure victory of the battle. Rin’s nature and heritage are revealed to everyone else, and she is transferred to the “secret” 13thDivision, which is made up of soldiers with their own supernatural abilities.

            Part III reveals more horrors of war through the eyes of Rin’s surviving classmates, and the descriptions provide images that won’t leave the readers’ minds anytime soon. This is the point in the novel that a decision must be made as to how to end the war immediately. And, no matter what is decided, there will be consequences. Yet, it is soon realized that it isn’t that one country is bad and the other is good, or vice versa; no, each side is ruthless and will do anything to ensure survival, including betrayals. 

            The narrative is first person and stream-of-consciousness. Readers witness Rin’s education and decisions through her eyes and understand her reasons behind all of her actions, including the mistakes she makes. It is because of Rin’s mistakes that readers can view her as a reliable narrator. The narrative jumps through time so that the pivotal moments in Rin’s life are presented to the readers. For example, the scenes of Rin’s imprisonment and the siege are told in real time so that readers can comprehend and emphasize with the boredom and the impatience the protagonist and her comrades deal with. Even the scenes illustrating the battles and their aftermath will leave you nauseated and horrified. The narrative is written in a way that all readers can follow. 

            The style Kuang uses throughout the novel reflects its setting. One could argue that The Poppy Waris an allegory of the emergence of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. The conflict of war within the novel is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, which occurred between 1937 and 1945. This war was one of the many isolated wars that were ongoing throughout the world during the second quarter of the 20thCentury. While The Poppy Warstarts off with the protagonist wanting an education in order to have a better life, the author follows up that education with an actual war, which changes the mood rather quickly. By the end of the novel, readers understand the tone of the story as well as the decision Rin makes and why it is necessary. 

            The appeal surrounding The Poppy Waris interesting. I say interesting because while I understood both the story and its acclaim, I know readers whom either disliked it, or did not finish it. The reason usually was either “it got too slow,” or “I thought this was a story about a school like Hogwarts.” First of all, not every fantasy book is going to be similar to Harry Potterbecause a “school” is mentioned in its synopsis! Second, Harry Potteris a YA series and The Poppy Waris for adults—go back and re-read Chapter 5! Last, if anyone read either the title, or the synopsis, then you would know that a war breaks out a third of the way within the novel. Instead, think of The Poppy Waras a military fantasy with folklore elements. Both Chinese culture and folklore are explained as part of the world building and the historical context are based on real life events. The explanation of Eastern Shamanism demonstrates the differences and the consequences of having this ability. I have neither read all of the fantasy books with its own version of shamanism, nor know the beliefs of similar concepts throughout the world. But, I can say that this explanation of the Chinese Pantheon is one of the most interesting presentations I have read in a long time. The Poppy Waris nominated for several upcoming literary fantasy awards including the Nebula Award and the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award (the Hugo Nominations have not been made during the time of this publication). The sequel, The Dragon Republic, will be released in August 2019. This means readers and critics will be able to enjoy more of R.F. Kuang’s story. 

            The Poppy Waris one of the most critically acclaimed debut novels in the speculative fiction genre in recent years. Fans of Asian history and fiction, military, silkpunk and folklore will enjoy this novel. The Poppy Warmade My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018, which should make you aware of how I feel about this book. It definitely deserves the hype and the award nominations, and I’m looking forward to reading more stories from R.F. Kuang. 

The criticism of the book is not deserved because there are some readers who want all of the books within a genre to be similar to one or two, and that is not fair to the authors and everyone else interested in the genre. One of the purposes of speculative fiction is for authors to tell their stories that go beyond literary fiction and what’s been done before. This allows for both the diversity and the inclusion of many stories, which allows for the expansion of the genre. Kuang is one of those authors and that is why you need to read The Poppy War.

My rating: MUST READ IT NOW! (5 out of 5)