Red Sister – The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown

red2bsister2bcoverSo I read an ARC of Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence, back in December but I have been holding off talking about it because I wanted to review it closer to publication date, and because I needed to calm down a little so that this review wasn’t the word vomit equivalent of “go buy it now”. I like to think that Mark and I have a fairly interesting relationship in that I have moved from one of his loudest detractors to one of his larger fans. The Thorns trilogy was really not my thing, but I found The Red Queen’s War charming, fun, exciting, and very well written. When Mark announced that he had a new series coming out, in a completely new setting, I was excited. I looked forward to seeing if my enjoyment of Mark’s work would continue to grow, and maybe his new book would be his best yet. I was not ready for Red Sister.

Red Sister is of a fairly different style than Mark’s earlier books, but is still completely him. The book feels like the spiritual sibling to Name of the Wind and Blood Song, but might surpass them both for me.  The book tells the story of Nona, an orphan of sorts who enters into the Sisterhood – an order of battle nuns that specialize in training girls to be Sisters. Sisters are trained to be warriors, scholars, tacticians, and magic users all in the service of a well rounded education in being awesome. The book’s plot is character driven, revolving solely around Nona’s life and various challenges and events that confront her and how she handles them. Mark has always been an excellent character writer, and a focus on this as the driving force of the book was an excellent choice – as he has only gotten better. The cast is fantastic, and the book places a large emphasis on friendship and the development of relationships that really struck home for me. Red Sister takes place in a magic school of sorts, and the teachers are some of the best since Harry Potter. Their charismatic classes, weird personalities, and clear love of their students nailed my guilty pleasure of magical schools when it comes to fantasy.

The characters are phenomenal, but the world is no slouch either. In traditional Lawrence style, there are some interesting things going on in the world that I won’t spoil, but the magic system might be one of my favorite of all time. The world of Red Sister has four ‘schools of magic/powers,’ each based on bloodlines. People of the world are descended from four distinct groups, each with their own powerful traits. While most individuals have had so much mixing they do not have the powers of any, a small collection are still able to access the powers, abilities, and traits of their ancestors. Some of these people can even access to more than one. Gerants are gigantic, hunskas can move at extreme speeds, marjals have small unique magic powers that remind me of the x-men, and quantals can manipulate energy around them to powerful effects. Nona is a hunska – but we see action from all four and the interplay between these groups is some of the most exciting reading I have done in a long time.

Speaking of Nona and her hunska abilities, the combat in this book is astoundingly good. Red Sister would do Joe Abercrombie proud and has some of, if not the, best fighting I have ever read. As mentioned, hunskas can move at extreme speeds but they also can perceive time more slowly allowing them to assess their fighting as it happens. Nona’s ability to have an inner monologue of analysis while she is fighting for her life enhance the thrill and adrenaline of fights greatly. In one particular scene involving a test, I got so immersed in what was happening my significant other started shaking me because I had started screaming aloud without realizing it. The combat is that good.

Red Sister also feels like a kinder and more mature book than Mark’s earlier work. While it is not as grim or dark as his first two trilogies, it is certainly not a bastion of sunshine. In the past I have had minor difficulty following the plot of some of Mark’s books, but Red Sister strikes the perfect balance of keeping you in the know and letting mystery build. The book grounds you in the world, establishes the status quo quickly, but then centers you on Nona’s life as a focus. This allows for a great structure, but also leaves tons of room for Mark to improvise to keep things interesting (which he does in spades). In line with this, Red Sister tells a very full and satisfying story but it only feels like the tip of the iceberg. On finishing the last page I got the sense that he is just getting started and it is only going to get better from here.

I don’t actually have any criticisms for Red Sister. It is always possible for a book to be better, but I personally can’t think of a way I would improve Mark’s newest creation. It is definitely going to be a contender for my number one spot of 2017 and I suspect it is going to sweep the awards this year. 2017, the gauntlet has been thrown and the challenge has been sounded. Red Sister has set the bar high for fantasy this year and we shall have to see if anyone can meet it. The Quill to Live unequivocally recommends Red Sister by Mark Lawrence, go buy it now.

Rating: Red Sister – 10/10

The Wheel of Osheim – A Different Kind Of Hero

27154427Mark Lawrence and I have an interesting relationship. As I talked about in my review of Prince of Fools, when I finished his first trilogy, The Broken Empire, I was immensely disappointed with how he chose to close out the story. The final book, Emperor of Thorns, put him on my blacklist and it was only when I decided to check out Prince of Fools on a whim that my opinion of him went through another shift. With my faith in him renewed, and my memories of Emperor lurking in my thoughts, I was extremely nervous to start The Wheel of Osheim. The final installment of The Red Queen’s War trilogy, I was concerned that I might have another unpleasant ending or that the finale might not live up to the quality of writing Lawrence demonstrated in Prince of Fools, and The Liar’s Key. However, Lawrence proved my fears to be unfounded. While I think The Wheel of Osheim is the weakest book in the trilogy, it is still one of the best books I have read this year.

For once I am going to start with my problems with the book, of which I had three. The following has spoilers for The Liar’s Key, you have been warned. When we left Jalan and Snorri at the end of book two, they had both entered into the door to death and their fates were unknown. The Wheel of Osheim picks up a short time later as Jalan is vomited out of a portal in the sky into the Sahara desert and begins to make his way home to The Red March. Jalan and Snorri’s time inside the realm of death is not immediately explained, but instead told in snippets throughout the entirety of the book. While this did make the book more suspenseful, it can also make The Wheel of Osheim’s pacing and narration a bit jarring at times and I would have preferred to just experience the events as they happened. The second problem I had with the narration is that I feel as Lawrence did not do enough back end work to establish some of Jalan’s skills on occasion. We are told he has received extensive training in a variety of pursuits throughout the book giving him some skill, but we only find out what that training was when the skill in question is used. This can occasionally lead to a deus ex machina where Jalan seemingly has the exact skill he needs to survive at pivotal moments. Finally, my last problem is that I feel the book needed a longer epilogue, or simply another chapter or two so that I could see the effects character’s action had on the world at the end of the book. The book felt like it ended too soon and I was left wanting more.

However, I say the best criticism a book can get is that I wish there was more of it. Despite the small problems I listed above, The Wheel of Osheim has a lot going for it. Most central to my praise is the growth and development of the protagonist Jalan. When I was introduced to the selfish, cowardly, and reprehensible Jalan in Prince of Fools I was really curious to see where Lawrence would go with him. Jalan was unlikable, but he was not so unlikable that I had trouble immersing myself in his character and relating to him. On top of this, he was consistently funny which made it fun to be along for the ride. I expected Lawrence to take Jalan on a path of improvement as the books went on, but what Lawrence achieved was actually much more impressive. Lots of authors like to have protagonists who are filled with self loathing, but often just feel like they are fishing for compliments as they lament how awful they are while saving a burning orphanage from mecha-Hitler. Jalan instead almost feels brutally honest with himself all the time, and it makes him much more likable, relatable, and made me more forgiving of his flaws. On top of this, Lawrence manages to have Jalan grow and become a better person while also not changing his core identity, which I found thrilling to read. Jalan continues to see himself as this awful person and doesn’t realize when he is slowly edging into benevolent or selfless acts, and it has this profound effect of making me love him all the harder.

While I had some small problems with the order events were told in, the pacing of the book felt extremely fast and exhilarating. Lawrence continues to impress as he sculpts new and creative nightmares for his protagonists to encounter, and I really feel like he was getting the most out of his setting in this trilogy compared to The Broken Empire. The action takes a large step up in the third installment, and Lawrence has shown some noticeable improvement in how he writes his action scenes. The ending was also quite enjoyable, and I left the series wanting more of Jalan and excited to see what the future entails for him and Jorg.

With some minor hiccups, The Wheel of Osheim provided a great end to a great trilogy. Jalan is one of the most memorable and enjoyable protagonists I have read in a while, and I want to see more of him. As I was once a Mark Lawrence detractor, you can trust me when I say that this is a book series worth picking up and will have you laughing, crying, and on the edge of your seat from start to finish. The Quill to Live recommends both The Wheel of Osheim, and The Red Queen’s War as a whole.

Rating: The Wheel of Osheim – 8.5/10
The Red Queen’s War – 9.0/10

This book was provided as an advanced copy for an honest review from Netgalley.

Mark Lawrence And The Importance Of Never Writing Off An Author

So, I have been buried under work recently and have had almost no time to make a post, or even read a book. However, this month I read a book that I felt I had to take time to write about. Many of you know who Mark Lawrence is. For those of you who don’t, he is the author of two very popular series that some would describe as some of the ‘darkest’ and ‘edgiest’ fantasy out there.

His first series, The Broken Empire Trilogy, follows an absolutely terrible human being named Jorg as he murders his way to success in a bubble of self absorption. Now I am sure you can sense from the tone that I did not enjoy The Broken Empire Trilogy. I am not saying the books were bad, I am simply saying I did not like them. But, something weird happened while I was reading the trilogy. I found the first book, Prince of Thorns, completely forgettable and the third book, Emperor of Thorns, completely unenjoyable. However, the second book, King of Thorns, I really enjoyed. The structure, character development, and plot all hit a really good place for me and I ended up rating King of Thorns as one of my favorite books for the year I read it. That being said, the third book left a very bad taste in my mouth. While I can see why many like it, it was just truly not my kind of story. Many of my close friends (who share similar tastes) agreed with me and they all swore off Mark Lawrence as a talentless hack. I was not convinced.

It is always important to try and understand why you didn’t like a book. Sometimes it is because you thought the book was poorly written, sometimes it is that the style is off, and sometimes it is simply that you do not like the plot or subject matter. As many of my companions wrote off Mark Lawrence, I continued to think about King of Thorns. So after Prince of Fools, the first book of his second trilogy, came out I considered it. I did not immediately grab the book, but I picked it up a few months ago on the cheap thinking it might be worth consideration. Multiple people told me I was wasting my time and money and that I would regret picking it up. They were all wrong.

While The Broken Empire follows Jorg as he murders his way to the top of a food chain, The Red Queens War (of which Prince of Fools is the first book) follows Jal and he tries to avoid all responsibility and enjoy life. This soon proves to be impossible as he is unwillingly set on a hero’s quest, something he is extremely unhappy about and looks for every opportunity to back out. With him is a viking companion named Snorri who is driven by noble virtues and motives on the same quest. These two characters have an incredible juxtaposition and Mark’s manipulation of both their emotions is masterfully done. While Jal is still not a good person, I found him infinitely more relatable and enjoyable to read than Jorg and his thorns.

My problem with Mark’s original trilogy is that I simply did not enjoy reading about the main character and that there were many elements of the plot I was not a fan of. On the other hand, I felt that he is an amazing world builder, is great at character development, and has a real talent for dialogue and pacing. It turns out that removing Jorg (and in fact making him a side character) cut the heart out of all my problems with the work. Prince of Fools continues Mark’s tradition of an incredibly well built world, clever dialogue, and character growth; but this time I love both the characters and plot. As a result, the book turned out to be one my the most enjoyable reads I have had in a while and will be picking up a copy of the sequel, The Liar’s Key, soon.

Authors wear many hats and it’s important to remember that a single book is hopefully not a good representation of their entire work. My experience with these books has inspired me to consider other authors I have written off over the years and think about why I stopped reading them. To Mark, I know you read almost everything on fantasy sites and that you are a great force in the fantasy genre, and I want to thank you for writing a book for me.

Rating: Prince of Fools – 9.0/10