International bestselling author Mark Lawrence’s most recent novel, Grey Sister, is the second installment in the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. The previous volume, Red Sister, was one of the most engaging books I read last year largely because I was so invested in the main character and her story (and the fact that it revolved around a group of badass nuns also certainly worked in its favor!). Though I didn’t find Grey Sister quite as compelling as the first, I did love it as well and could hardly put it down throughout the exciting second half.

Other than the future timeline continued in the prologue and epilogue and the first chapter set toward the end of the previous book, Grey Sister takes place about two years after the end of Red Sister, beginning with Nona’s advancement to Mystic Class. Within the walls of the convent, she must contend with a secret that would surely get her expelled if it were discovered, a highborn novice whose mission in life appears to be getting Nona into trouble, and her upcoming Shade Trial—which seems an impossible feat for someone with Nona’s distinct eyes and lack of a shadow, as it requires hiding in plain sight among her classmates.

Meanwhile, neither the influential Tacsis family nor their hired assassins have forgotten their vendetta against Nona, and those in power are becoming increasingly desperate as the ice extends further into the narrow corridor around the world’s equator. Aristocrats are hatching plans involving using the Church of the Ancestor as their pawn, but farsighted Abbess Glass has a plan of her own—a plan that leads Nona into great danger outside the convent…

Red Sister was one of my two favorite books of 2017, so of course Grey Sister was one of this year’s releases I was most looking forward to reading. Though I loved it as well, I thought the first book was stronger and found the first half of Grey Sister surprisingly easy to put down compared to the previous novel. It was certainly readable with some compelling parts, such as the Shade Trial and the mystery surrounding Abbess Glass’ plot, but it was also unevenly paced with too much focus given to the petty, uninteresting novice who was hostile toward Nona. Many of the secondary characters could have been better developed, and the writing was occasionally awkwardly phrased (plus there were quite a few typos)—although there was also more of the great dialogue often tinged with humor as in the first book, even if it didn’t seem quite as sharply honed to me.

Yet the second part was more consistently intriguing and kept me turning the pages to find out what happened to the characters I’ve become so invested in: Nona, Abbess Glass, Zole, and a certain Grey Sister I’m going to avoid naming because it’s a bit of a spoiler. It contained some phenomenal scenes with fighting and magic, and I particularly enjoyed the theme of strength and power taking a variety of forms. Best of all, I found Grey Sister to be a book I kept thinking about long after I put it down, wondering what happens next and speculating about happenings in the future timeline. Even though I felt it could have used a bit more polish, Grey Sister also stuck with me more than most of the books I read.

Grey Sister reveals more about the Missing, the people who lived on the planet before the four tribes arrived on their ships, but also leaves plenty of questions surrounding them unanswered. It also has more focus on the Noi-Guin assassins, and as can be gleaned from the title, Sisters of Discretion with one of the more prominent characters being a Grey Sister who comes to Nona’s aid. Grey Sisters are just as deadly as the warrior order of Red Sisters, but more of their work is done from the shadows and their weapons of choice tend toward poisons, traps, and throwing stars. Nona herself does not have the subtlety of a Sister of Discretion, but like all novices, she takes Shade classes and her story also ties into learning more about the Grey Sisters. After she’s moved to Mystic Class, she faces the challenge of the Shade Trial in which the goal is to retrieve a box and open it—without being challenged by any of her classmates waiting in the vicinity knowing she’ll be attempting to do exactly that.

The school setting with its classes and array of nuns is fun, and I appreciate how the different powers are handled. Though Nona is unusually powerful even compared to most (but not all!) of the novices, she isn’t automatically the best at everything and some types of magic come to her more easily than others since the range of abilities is vast. Large, forceful, destructive magic comes more naturally to Nona than that requiring delicacy and patience, but when she succeeds, it isn’t always entirely due to her power (though it certainly helps!). As in the first book, she tends to excel by thinking outside the box and knowing herself and how to best use her strengths to her advantage. Yet no matter how powerful a single individual is, big changes ultimately come from people working together—and even with smart ideas and immense magics, Nona still would not have made it out of most of her most major or minor scrapes without her friends and the supportive bonds between them.

There are nuns who expertly wield weapons or extraordinary magic, but many are Holy Sisters who simply serve the Ancestor, including the head of the convent. Throughout Grey Sister, there are several sections following Abbess Glass as she sets a plan in motion, though the precise details are not revealed until later. The abbess is a fascinating women who does not possess flashy abilities but is still a total badass: she does not need to know how to handle cold steel because she is made of steel. Abbess Glass is politically savvy with an understanding of people, and she takes great personal risks and faces the consequences with unwavering courage and a cool demeanor.

An overarching theme is that there is a time for being upfront and forceful and one for fine-tuned deception, and despite all the violence and physical combat, there’s also an emphasis on inner strength. Abbess Glass is the obvious example of this, but though she makes mistakes at times, Nona also faces a challenge that shows some inner strength: restraining her rage when others are tempting her to give in to it and remaining steadfast in her conviction that friendship doesn’t make her weak. She’s the type of person who hates and loves with all of her heart, and although expressing hatred comes more naturally to her than love as she’s not the type to dwell on sentimentality, her actions speak volumes—she doesn’t think twice about putting herself in harm’s way when a friend needs her.

Even if I didn’t think Grey Sister was quite up to the high standard set by Red Sister, especially during the first half or so, I enjoyed reading it—and pondering it afterward—immensely. It contained a plethora of intriguing characters, and I’m looking forward to reading more about them in Holy Sister next year.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Grey Sister

Reviews of Previous Books in the Book of the Ancestor Trilogy:

  1. Red Sister