I don’t often fall headlessly in love.
But with these books by Mark Lawrence, I did.
Red Sister is the first book in the trilogy called Book of the Ancestor. Mark Lawrence has previously written two fantasy trilogies in a different world — one brutal grimdark and one dark comedy. I haven’t read the grimdark one, and I didn’t much like the dark comedy, but they’re mighty popular among other people, so I guess it’s just a matter of personal taste.
Red Sister, however, created a new benchmark for my reading materials in terms of tone and style. It hit all the marks (ha!) on things I didn’t know I loved until this book showed me.
Now, Nona isn’t an entirely likeable character, but you will have to look past that. There are plenty of other likeable characters from early on. And there are mysteries wrapped in mysteries, which seems to be something of a specialty of Lawrence’s. In his first two trilogies, the setting hides a treasure trove of history. Much is wrapped in the mists of time and only hinted at in the books, outlined in broad strokes for those who know what to look for. In The Book of the Ancestor, though set in a different world, there’s perhaps even more history — most of it unknown to Nona and her friends. What little information remains from earlier civilisations is either lost to time or warped into myths that hardly anyone believes in.
In the first book, Red Sister, this is all mainly background and setting. The focus is on Nona and her life as a newcomer in a monastery of fighting nuns. But the farther you read, the more Nona has to start worrying about those age-old mysteries, because if she doesn’t, people she cares about (and who you care about, too) will die.
And then there’s the atmosphere. The world itself is dying, little by little, as the light fades from an aging star. The tone this sets is a thing of absolute beauty. Combine that with Lawrence’s skills with the English language, and the result is a masterpiece.
I didn’t quite realise what the different parts were that made it so beautiful until I had finished the series. And when I started on The Girl and the Stars, the first book of his next trilogy, I paid closer attention. And this book didn’t just offer another visit to the world I enjoyed. No, the first part of the Book of the Ice trilogy takes everything I liked about Book of the Ancestor to the next level.
For one, the knowledge you gained from the Book of the Ancestor trilogy lets you get one step ahead of Yaz, the main character, in her road to discovery of anything from magic powers to the world itself. There’s also the sweet little detail that Yaz is a thoroughly likeable character. The mysteries-conflicts are present — up close, in her face — from the first third or so of the book. There’s even a character, almost like an Easter egg, hinting at connections between this world and the grimdark/comedy one.
I’ve read reviews from people who thought The Girl and the Stars was too slow and that nothing happened, but they can’t have been paying proper attention. The book is a ticking bomb. I can only wait, bite my fingernails, and see what books 2 and 3 will offer.
One thing I found interesting when I heard about it is, Mark Lawrence has aphantasia, a neurological variation that means he doesn’t have a ‘mind’s eye’. I have a mild version of aphantasia myself, that makes it hard for me to picture anything more than just the broad strokes of an image. If I try to focus on a detail, the rest disappears.
Lawrence does, however, seem to share a different ability I have, to imagine the ‘feel’ or ‘sense’ of a room, a scene, an item, a person. (I can seriously imagine the ‘feel’ of a green wooden chair. Nope, not joking. But I struggle to see it clearly.) And perhaps this quirk helps Lawrence capture the feeling, the essence, of this bleak world, when others might have focused on visuals. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with it. Who knows?
But if he can write books like these, then maybe there’s hope for me, too.
So, there. I’m adding another name to my top-whatever list of Most Beloved Authors.
I would actually say he ranks among the top three, beside Robin Hobb and Laini Taylor.
My hat’s off to you, sir.
Earlier this year I made a decision. I am going to dramatically increase the number of women in my stories. At least in my shorter works.
Do I have a lack of women in my writing? I wouldn’t say so. Previously, I’ve made an effort to write stories of equal representation and opportunity. I’ve had men, women, and nonbinary characters, and neither has oppressed the others.
So why, then, do I want to increase the number of women in my stories?
There are a few reasons.
Catalyst for this decision was reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. The series is lauded as one of the best examples in the fantasy genre when it comes to representation of women. This praise is mainly (or even solely) directed at the main character, Vin. And yes, she is well-rounded, three-dimensional, complex; she has an agenda, a character arc, and she kicks arse. She’s a great character and good female representation in science fiction and fantasy.
But that’s also where it more or less stops. I realised after finishing the three books that I could name about five or six female characters. This is a 2000 page epic trilogy with hundreds of characters, named and unnamed, and my guess is, the total number of women is below 30. All the other characters — thieves, noblemen, soldiers, clergymen, politicians, rebels — they’re all men. There is a large number of magic users, and all but three of them are men and boys. Boys! There are insecure teenage boys hanging around and being trained in their magic craft, but no girls or women. Except Vin. Who is naturally very special and only survives among all these men because she’s so special.
Yet this book is held up as an example of how to write women.
I’d like to say it’s more an example of how to write one woman.
People read these books and others — some with even less female representation — and don’t reflect much upon the gender disparity. I even recall a time when I read books like The Lord of the Rings without really noticing the lack of women. I learnt from an early age to identify with the men.
I also learnt to despise the women, who of course did not get to go on adventures or save the world. If my alternatives were: a) being a frightened girl (princess or otherwise) who needed rescuing, or b) being a brave warrior who killed the dragon — well, I’d rather be the warrior, even if he was a man.
Anyone with any kind of respect for women as a gender should realise there is something deeply unsound about those types of choices, even — or especially — reshaped into easily digestible bits of storytelling.
The problem is, we still, to this day, tell our daughters they will be the ones needing rescuing from cages, towers, brothels, and so on. Or they will even be dying in dark forests, alleys, and motel rooms. They will never be the one to defeat the monster. No matter how hard they try, they will be limited by what’s (not) between their legs.
Unless, of course, they become “not like the other girls”. Like Vin. In which case, the lesson is still “don’t be a girl”. Being born a girl is bad. Growing up a girl is worse. Apparently. So just try not to be a girl.
Another reason I will write more female characters is this:
How would men react if gender representation suddenly switched? If every man in every book in the world suddenly became a woman, and vice versa?
Can you imagine the outrage?
As women, we are told to write male characters because “boys only read about boys, but girls read everything”. And to a frighteningly high degree, that’s true of grown men and women, too.
As women, we are told to use male pseudonyms or gender neutral initials, because “many boys and men don’t like to read books by a woman author”. So we pretend to be men so as not to lose half our potential audience. Why sabotage your success as an author by admitting to being the wrong gender, y’know?
Well, my decision is this:
If there are boys and men out there who don’t read books written by women, or books about women, then I don’t want them as my readers. I won’t write under a male pseudonym. And I’m aware that by writing mainly female characters, and the odd nonbinary, I may scare away a large portion of my readers.
Among those would be a lot of men, of course, but possibly also a good number of women who disagree with my political stance. But I’m not here to make big money; I’m here to have fun. My principles are more important than the size of my readership. (Which at the moment consists of approximately five people, so I guess I don’t have much to lose.)
We’re all so used to reading stories where any random character is always male, while any female character serves a specifically female purpose. Either she’s a mother, or a girl in distress, or maybe a witch. She’s never just a traveller, a merchant, an innocent bystander. Unless, of course, she’s also the main character’s romantic interest, which is also a specifically female purpose. (Heteronormativity, anyone?)
So what would it be like to read story after story with only female and nonbinary characters, and just the occasional token male? Would it affect our reading experience? Our opinion of those stories? Our prejudice against female characters?
I want to find out.
And since there are so many stories out there already with a large cast of male characters, I think I can safely put a few small weights on the other pan without accidentally creating a society-wide, tyrannical matriarchy in the process.