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Literature / Book of the Ancestor

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It takes an army to kill a nun.

I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…

The Ancestor trilogy is a series of Science Fantasy novels by Mark Lawrence which are based around the adventures of battle nun Nona Grey. The first novel Red Sister came out on April 4th, 2017, with Grey Sister and Holy Sister following in 2018 and 2019; an e-book short story, "Bound," takes place between the second and third books. Book of the Ice, a prequel trilogy set in the same world but decades earlier and focusing on the ice rather than the Corridor, has been finished in 2022.

Tropes present in this work:

  • The Ace: Nona, Arabella Jotsis, and Zole are all at one point or another considered potential Chosen Ones due to their multiple Old Bloods and innate skills. Nona and Zole especially repeatedly overcome obstacles thought to be either far advanced beyond their ages or at times outright impossible.
    • The energies of the Path are so immense and taxing that touching the Path more than once in a week is said to be suicide for even the most experienced and powerful Quantals. Legends of famous Path-Mages tend to end with "and then she touched the Path during battle six days later, and it blew up the entire mountainside". In the climax of Grey Sister Nona touches the Path for the second time in the same day, mere hours after having escaped weeks-long torture, starvation, and deprivation.
    • While all of the Sisters Superior must be aces in their field, Sister Pan stands out as possibly the strongest Path-Mage in the world. Most people can only walk the path for a few steps, with the greatest being able to do fifty or so. Sister Pan has been walking the Path for twenty years, and when she lets loose annihilates the competing mages and a good chunk of the army in the greatest example of Path magic in the series and possibly in the history of Abeth.
  • Agony Beam: Thuran Tacsis owns an artifact he calls the Harm which directly stimulates extreme pain in the victim. He actually doesn't much care for it, as he prefers more visceral forms of torture, but he finds it has its uses because its quick and easy to use and leaves no visible mark. He subjects Nona to it briefly in Grey Sister and she steals it and uses it on him in turn at the end of the book.
  • All-Loving Hero: Given a twist. Abbess Glass really does believe that all of humanity are children of the Ancestor and worth protecting, but her Guile Hero ways still get people hurt and killed because she lives in a Crapsack World and part of her love for humanity is taking out people who threaten it. She trains Nona in this form of thinking as well, and when given the chance to use the focus moon, Nona opts to only incinerate Adoma rather than her whole army.
  • Alpha Bitch: Subverted with Arabella, who Nona initially believes is this until she realizes that her first impressions were mostly a result of Clera's attitude, and that Ara is actually a very sweet and friendly person. Once Nona realizes this, they quickly become close friends.
    • Played straight with Joeli Namsis. Though Holy Sister ends with Nona accepting that Joeli might not have deliberately intended Darla's death, and choosing to leave her fate up to court justice rather than seeking revenge herself, Joeli is never really sympathetic.
  • Always Someone Better: Zole proves to be superior than Nona (and pretty much everyone else for that matter) in practically every way, at least when it comes to skill, magic, and martial ability. Subverted in that most of the reason she proves to be so strong and skilled is as a result of using the shiphearts to rid herself of her "impurities" in the form of negative personality traits, but ridding herself of much of her humanity in the process, to the point where in Holy Sister she chooses to let Nona control the Focus Moon, accepting the reasoning that she herself is too separated from humanity to utilize it correctly.
  • Amazonian Beauty: Nona starts off small and scrawny, but between hitting puberty and several years of Sweet Mercy cooking she shoots up massively over the course of the trilogy; by Holy Sister she's roughly six feet tall, very athletic, and as for the beauty part, Regol and Ara both certainly think so.
  • Anti-Magic: Objects can be engraved with sigils that can make them resistant to magical effects, including armor that protects the wearer from magical attack and cuffs that can be used to restrain a captive mage's power.
  • Anyone Can Die: Typical for a Mark Lawrence work.
    • In Red Sister Hessa dies during the climax trying to prevent Yisht from escaping with the Sweet Mercy shipheart.
    • In Grey Sister Darla is mortally wounded while escaping Sherzal's palace when Joeli Namsis pulls her threads during battle, causing her to freeze up and opening her up to attacking guards. She dies from her wounds shortly after.
    • In Holy Sister the casualties of the final battle are heavy. Among the fallen are Sister Apple, Sister Pan, Abbess Wheel, Sister Tallow, Sister Iron, Alata, Leeni, Ketti, and several others.
  • Apocalypse How: In progress due to the local sun slowly burning out and bringing about an encroaching ice age. More than that, the stars themselves are burning out, implying that the story takes place shortly before the impending heat death of the universe.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The Sis, the aristocratic class of the Empire, generally have a reputation as a corrupt, arrogant, backstabby bunch. They're not all that bad, but some definitely are - with the Tacsis family (Thuran and his sons Raymel and Lano) being prime examples.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: One theory as to the ultimate fate of the Missing, the Precursors that inhabited Abeth before humanity.
    • While Zole isn't quite there at the end of Holy Sister, she's implied to be most of the way along to the same fate as the Missing.
  • Badass Boast: Nona gives them sometimes, as in the page quote. After she's possessed by Keot he'll occasionally take over her mouth when she's not paying attention and give them on her behalf, which she hates both because he's usually trying to get her into a fight and because his boasts tend to be embarrassingly overwrought.
  • Badass in Distress: Frequently, such as when Nona gets ambushed and imprisoned by the Noi Guin on behalf of Thuran Tacsis in Grey Sister.
  • Battle Couple: Sisters Apple and Kettle.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Sherzal and Adoma are the primary antagonists of the trilogy, and though they briefly attempt an alliance (which falls through) at the end of Grey Sister they generally represent completely separate threats.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The war between the Empire and Scithrowl; yes, the Empire is certainly an incredibly flawed and imperfect nation, but there's never much doubt the Scithrowl are far worse. This is explicitly discussed by Sister Kettle, who is of the opinion that the war would have been a case of Grey-and-Grey Morality where she'd still support the Empire but only because she was born there - except that she's seen what lives under the black ice and it's left her convinced that someone like Adoma who would ally with such a force to gain power absolutely must be stopped.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Given a twist in the final chapters of Holy Sister. When Adoma refuses to back down, Nona hits her with the Focus Moon, turning everything within thirty yards of her to ash. The Scithrowl army takes the hint and runs.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Sister Wheel takes every opportunity to demean Nona for coming from the Grey, but is later revealed to be a Grey denizen herself.
  • Boyish Short Hair: Nona typically wears her hair like this; apparently she's tried to let it get long, but if she does it becomes untameably wild so she prefers to keep it short.
  • Came Back Wrong: If someone is fatally wounded, it's possible to magically prevent their soul from passing on while healers work to fix their body. Unfortunately, the longer this takes, the likelier it is that something will notice and decide to hitch a ride back. Happens to Raymel.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Those with strong ancestry in the four tribes tend not to live long. The powers and strength granted by their bloodline are very taxing on the body.
  • Casts No Shadow: Nona, starting from the climax of the first book, where she cut it off to fight against Yisht.
  • The Chessmaster: Abbess Glass is a very good one. Her posthumous machinations in Holy Sister are particularly impressive.
  • The Chosen One: Deconstructed and played with as the nuns are all clear the prophecy is made up but the fact people believe in it makes it powerful.
    • That said, both Zole and potentially Nona herself fit the criteria laid out in the prophecy, and considering they end up fulfilling roughly the destiny set out in the prophecy anyway it certainly isn't as far off as it could be.
    • Also addressed directly by Abbess Glass in Holy Sister. Zole and Nona are both the Chosen One, but not due to any prophecy. They were both chosen by Abbess Glass to fulfill the purpose she and the world needed of them.
  • Church Militant: Central to the premise of the series, as Nona and her friends are in training to be holy warriors for the Church of the Ancestor.
  • Combat Clairvoyance: Yisht's marjal talent is to sense the intentions of others, which makes her a nearly invincible warrior. Most of the time, it's not a question of winning against Yisht as it is getting away from her, but she can be tricked. She's finally killed when Nona rigs a bunch of throwing stars to fly at her, since objects have no intentions. It doesn't kill her, but it leaves her weak and slow enough that she can't stop Nona's blows.
  • Crapsack World: The Corridor is a world covered in an ice age with the moon (a giant focusing lens) being the only thing keeping the ice away. It's also riddled with corruption, tyranny, fanaticism, and slavery. Oh, and the fact that the Focus Moon is necessary because the local sun is burning out, as are all of the other visible stars, implying that the story takes place some time during the heat death of the universe.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The different orders of nuns. Martial Sisters wear red, Sisters of Discretion wear grey, Mystic Sisters wear blue, and Holy Sisters wear black.
  • Cool Old Lady: Most of the senior nuns, with the possible exception of Sister Wheel, qualify; Abbess Glass and Sister Pan are probably the most obvious examples.
  • Corrupt Church: The Church of the Ancestor isn't particularly devout and its members are decidedly venal. Despite this, they loathe the idea their primary concern is money and have a few principles they stand by. Of course, this chiefly applies to the top ranks of the Church, who have the most religious and secular power. There are plenty of honest clergy in the rank-and-file of the Church who are perfectly sincere in their faith.
  • The Corrupter: Keot tries to act as this for Nona, driving her to embrace her violence and bloodlust. He fails.
  • Court Mage: Adoma keeps a cabal of these, nicknamed Adoma's Fist; their leader, Yom Rala, fits the mold most closely. She deploys them to Verity to bring down the walls at the final battle. They do, but immediately afterwards they get wiped out, along with a good chunk of the Scithrowl army, by Sister Pan.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Abbess Glass sets up as many possible pieces on the board as she can just in case she needs them, often decades in advance. She spent years building a fake rivalry with two people in the Inquisition, Seldom and Agika, just in case one of her real rivals decided to testify against her and summoned them.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus:
    • The Church of the Ancestor is very similar to Christianity, except for its sect of battle nuns.
    • The Hope Church, the Empire's other major religion, resembles other aspects of Christianity, particularly in its emphasis on eschatology and messianism; that said, it doesn't get nearly as much focus or development.
  • Deal with the Devil: Adoma is said to have gained unspecified powers by bargaining with the devils trapped in the Black Ice.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Sister Thorn appears in the prologue and Frame Story years after the events of Red Sister and concurrent with Holy Sister and we're initially led to believe she's an older Nona. she's actually an older Ara. Nona becomes Sister Cage, who shows up later in the frame story.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: A common theme with Nona, as many of her closest friendships are with people she starts out in conflict with. Arabella, Darla, and Zole all start out as Nona's rivals or enemies (though in Arabella's case the animosity was mostly the result of a misunderstanding on Nona's part and never really existed from Ara's end in the first place) and end up being some of her staunchest allies.
  • Demonic Possession: Devils can become attached to a person's soul in various ways. Suffering a near-death experience for too long before being pulled back by a Marjal healer is the most common, but being exposed to a shipheart or someone else who was possessed works too. Nona picks up a devil called Keot after finally killing Raymel and he spends most of Grey Sister living in her head; one devil alone can't control a person's actions, but they can act to provoke their worse instincts.
  • Determinator: Nona will protect her friends, no matter how badly she's injured, how wild the plan, if there's a demon in her screaming not to, or even if that friend has betrayed her before. In a battle her strongest asset is her ability to keep going past incredible amounts of pain and injury, and Sister Pan notes at one point that even threadwork can't make Nona back down from those she loves.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Abbess Glass repeatedly reminds the High Priest that her name is Glass now, not Shella.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: At the climax of Holy Sister, Sister Pan sacrifices herself to annihilate Adoma's Fist and a significant chunk of the regular Scithrowl army. Apparently she unleashed so much power in doing so that every Path mage in the world felt her die.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: The Tetragode, headquarters of the Noi-Guin. Played with in that it's not a specific location and moves to a different part of the Empire every few years. As of Grey Sister, it's under Sherzal's palace.
  • The Empath: one Marjal (also usable by Quantals) power is to recognize and manipulate other people's feeling. Brother Markus - who was together with Nona in the cage - as well as Zole are very strong empaths who can effortlessly persuade people to lose interest in whatever they were doing and set them on a new path with a few choice words and new feelings.
  • Enemy Within: The second of the two types of devils act like this. What the Ice Tribes call a klaulathu is a malign remnant of the Missing that tries to possess people; a raulathu, on the other hand, is a devil created by someone spending too much time in contact with a shipheart, and rather than an external parasite it's more like a voice in their head that directly speaks that person's worst instincts.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The four Archons are all corrupt to at least some extent but none of them are happy at High Priest Jacob's attempt to have an eight-year-old girl executed for stabbing a Serial Killer engaged in rape, no matter who his father is. They're also disgusted by how obvious his corruption is, believing a High Priest should be more circumspect. Oh and they're angry at being made to travel a good distance for this farce.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The leader of the Noi-Guin is known only as the Singular; if he ever had a name, it's been long obscured.
  • The Evil Prince: Sherzal is an evil princess (though not literally; an emperor or empress's siblings don't carry any special titles, lest they get ideas), determined to steal her brother's throne and grab as much power for herself as she can by any means necessary.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Adoma's Fist are a group of Quantal and Marjal mages Adoma keeps on staff primarily to destroy her enemies in suitably spectacular ways.
  • Fatal Flaw: Nona's fatal flaw is her bloodlust, which can cause her to seek needlessly violent solutions to her problems and to throw herself head-first into dangerous situations; this aspect of her personality is what Keot latches on to. With Character Development, however, she learns to tame this side of her nature and direct it towards productive goals rather than let it rule her. Subverted by her unreserved trust in her friends, which is a trait that she is warned repeatedly will get her into trouble; more often than not, however, she makes this one work for her.
  • Fantastic Honorifics: The aristocrats of the Empire are called 'Sis', and as a result a noble family's surname always has the syllable '-sis' added to the end of it.
  • Frame Story: Red Sister and Grey Sister are bookended by accounts of Lano Tacsis leading an assault on Sweet Mercy some years after the events of the novels proper. Holy Sister catches up to it and shows the context and how things end.
  • The Fundamentalist: Sister later Abbess Wheel is the strictest in her faith of the major nuns at Sweet Mercy and the most standoffish and judgmental towards anyone who doesn't meet her standards, including Nona. Ironically, this proves useful in Holy Sister: when Nona swears herself as a Holy Sister, Wheel is so astonished by the act that she immediately reverses her dislike of Nona and lets her carry out Glass' orders.
  • Gender Is No Object: Though the Empire is a pretty brutal place to live in most respects, it's also largely egalitarian when it comes to gender, with both women and men represented in positions of political, military and religious authority.
  • The Ghost:
    • Emperor Crucical remains an off-page character for the whole trilogy, though his influence is certainly felt throughout.
    • The Scithrowl Battle-Queen Adoma is frequently mentioned throughout the trilogy and leads an invasion of the Empire in the third book, but she herself is only glimpsed once by Nona from a distance before she blasts her to ashes with the moon.
  • Giant Wall of Watery Doom: Downplayed in that it's not giant, but it doesn't have to be. When Nona, Ara, and Clera are evading pursuers in the undercaves, Nona cracks open the Stillwater and the water rushes into the caves. The three of them barely get out alive.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Battle-Queen Adoma is the ruler of the ambitious and expansionist kingdom of Scithrowl; she has a reputation as a tyrant and demagogue and leads an invasion of the Empire in Holy Sister, becoming the trilogy's final and most dangerous antagonist.
  • Grandpa God: The Scithrowl apparently depict the Ancestor as looking like this. The Church in the Empire rejects this depiction as heretical, preferring a vague figure whose features and gender are undefined.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The devils of the Black Ice represent the greatest evil known to the people of the Empire; during Nona's travel through the Black Ice, she gets the sense that they are far more powerful and malevolent than Keot, the devil who'd possessed her. Aside from their unspecified connection to Adoma, however, they don't really do anything plot-wise.
  • Guile Hero: Abbess Glass has no gift of the blood, but she is an extremely talented chessmaster, which she wields to protect the convent, the Church, the Empire, and eventually all of Abeth. Nona repeatedly mentions that Glass' gift of manipulating people and events to her liking makes her more powerful than any mage, warrior, or noble.
  • Handicapped Badass: Hessa has a lame leg and is the most talented threadworker Sister Pan has ever seen, which considering her age says quite a lot. Unfortunately, she's killed in the first book before she can fully grow into her power, or else she'd have made short work of Joeli.
  • Hate Sink: Sherzal, Joeli Namsis, and the entire Tacsis family are epitomes of Aristocrats Are Evil. Sherzal is willing to risk the entire country to become emperor and plans to use the moon to genocide competing nations, Joeli is a petty entitled brat who tries to kill Nona because she hates having to respect a peasant, and the Tacsis family are power-hungry sadists who consider it their birthright to hurt lesser people and are quite eager to rape, torture, and kill anyone who gets in their way.
    Kettle: Sherzal, the Tacsis, they'd drown this country in blood just so they could float even higher from their already lofty position.
  • Heel–Face Revolving Door: From the end of Red Sister and across Grey Sister and Holy Sister Clera seems to switch sides almost every time she appears. She ends up settling on Face.
  • Heinz Hybrid: Technically everyone in Abeth is descended from all four of the ancient tribes, but this is most obvious in people who show the traits of multiple tribes:
    • Zole, who demonstrates traits of all four tribes to a notable degree, is the most obvious example of this and is considered the most likely candidate to be The Chosen One because of it.
    • Nona herself is only slightly behind, being a Hunska/Quantal/Marjal mix. Per Holy Sister, she might be a four-blood herself, since her adult height hints at a touch of Gerant as well; that said, it's never confirmed and though Nona is an unusually tall woman she's not outside the range of what's possible for a normal human, so there's some ambiguity there.
  • The Heretic:
    • The Empire and the Scithrowl practice somewhat different forms of the Church of the Ancestor and mutually consider each other horrible heretics because of it.
    • The Hope Church is considered a recognized heresy of the Ancestor; as a result, even though the Church of the Ancestor is the Empire's official religion, the Hope Church can teach and practice without needing to fear persecution. Doesn't stop Ancestor and Hope clergy from making snide comments at or about each other whenever given the opportunity.
  • High Priest: The head of the Church of the Ancestor is officially titled the High Priest. Their power, however, is not absolute, as the High Priest is elected by the four Archons and a unanimous vote of the Archons can overrule them - or, if necessary, remove a High Priest altogether and replace them with someone else. High Priest Jacob learns this the hard way in Red Sister.
  • I Don't Want to Ruin Our Friendship: Nona refuses to jeopardize her friendships for anything, including her own romantic feelings. It takes her until the epilogue of Holy Sister to admit her feelings for Arabella, and only because Ara admitted them first.
  • Informed Ability: Becomes a plot-point in Holy Sister. Sister Pan has a reputation as an immensely powerful Mystic Sister, but she's also incredibly old and infirm and hasn't used her powers in decades, with some of the novices, especially Clera, wondering if she's really all that special. Then she finally gets to show off what she can do near the end of the trilogy, and if anything, her reputation undersold her.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Nona is surprised in 'Bound' to realize that, despite her antipathy for Sister Wheel, she actually agrees with a lot of the philosophy she teaches in Spirit class. Abbess Glass indicates that this is actually the reason she put someone as disagreeable as Wheel in charge of such an important class (Spirit dealing with the history, doctrines and rituals of the Church); novices need to learn that just because someone is unpleasant it doesn't mean they're wrong.
  • Just Before the End: The sun is red and dying, as are most of the other stars; the planet is slowly freezing and the area of livable land in the Corridor is slowly narrowing and will close completely when the Focus Moon stops working... but that's at least centuries away, and humanity's not out of the picture just yet.
  • Kangaroo Court: The trial by the Archons is supposed to be this. Averted when it's clear the Archons are a great deal less prejudiced than the High Priest assumed, not to mention angry at him for dragging them halfway across the Empire to settle a personal grudge he only cares about because he was bribed too.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: After spending two books getting away with everything because her family is too powerful to offend, Joeli is callously tossed aside by Sherzal, leaving her at the mercy of the Sisters she tormented for so long. Zole's magic confirms that she truly didn't kill Darla intentionally, so Nona spares her, but she's left to the humiliation of being stripped of her privileges and being tried by a court, a Fate Worse than Death for a character so haughty.
  • Kill Sat: What the Moon turns out to be, and used with extreme effect in Holy Sister.
  • Life Will Kill You: After evading countless attempts on her life and playing a very long game, Abbess Glass ultimately dies of old age and illness.
  • Loophole Abuse: Nuns are Brides of the Ancestor, and thus expected to retain a vow of celibacy. However, this vow only applies to heterosexual pairings (since they're the only ones that can conceive children and thus add branches to the Tree), so even Sister Wheel turns a blind eye to Sisters Apple and Kettle. In Holy Sister, this also applies to Nona and Ara.
  • Lost Technology: Arksteel, shiphearts, and many other devices are the scavenged remnants of the ships that first brought humanity to Abeth, their workings long-since forgotten as the knowledge and resources to maintain them was lost under the ice. Finding a way to open and then operate the Ark forms the premise of the Chosen One prophecy.
  • Made a Slave: What happens to Nona in the beginning as she and many other children are sold by their parents for the possibilities inherent in their blood. Subverted in Nona's case as it was the only way to get her away from her village as no one owned the means to take her far enough.
  • Made of Evil: Demons are enhanced portions of a persons' worst personality traits. The demons of the Black Ice are the leftover evil of an entire civilization.
  • Mage Species: Marjals and Quantals. Marjals have 'lesser magics' which can include Elemental Powers, shadow powers and healing, among other tricks; Quantals can access the Path, which is more difficult and dangerous but can produce some massively spectacular effects when channeled properly. Of course, because everyone on Abeth is of mixed blood from the four original tribes, it's entirely possible (albeit rare) to have both sets of abilities.
  • Magic Knight: Any nun or novice who is skilled at blade training and has enough Quantal and/or Marjal blood to use magic qualifies; Nona and Ara are both standout examples.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Joeli Namsis likes to trick people into doing her work for her, especially when it comes to winding Nona up to provoke her into stupid mistakes.
  • Mark of the Supernatural:
    • The climax of Red Sister leaves Nona with solid black eyes and no shadow, giving her a very clear unnatural air. The climax of Holy Sister reverses both.
    • Someone who is possessed by a devil has a discolored patch like a birthmark somewhere on their body, which is actually the devil's physical manifestation. It can move around to avoid discovery.
  • Master Poisoner: Sister Apple; there's a reason her novices call her 'the Poisoner.' She's very good at making them, and has a tendency to use (mild but usually embarrassing) ones on unsuspecting students in her classes.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Abbess Glass dies of disease (implied to be some form of cancer) in the Time Skip between Grey Sister and Holy Sister. Her death is shown in a flashback.
  • My Death Is Just the Beginning: Abbess Glass certainly doesn't let death stop her from scheming; Nona and her friends are still following her instructions for much of Holy Sister.
  • Nun Too Holy: Not all of the Red Sisters are enamored of the Ancestor. Of course, there are plenty of nuns who do take their faith very seriously; Sweet Mercy alone is big enough for there to be plenty of room for variance. Nona herself starts out not really crediting much of the religious side of the Church of the Ancestor, but by the end of the trilogy she's grown into a strong, if somewhat unconventional, faith.
  • One-Man Army: What the Shields of the Chosen One, Sisters Thorn and Cage, become, and several nuns before them in history.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: All the Sisters, as they take the names of objects once they take their vows to emphasize how they are set apart from the world (a nun's 'bride name' can be the name of a plant or animal as well as an object; the primary element is that it can't be something that would be an ordinary human name in Imperial society). Twice over in the case of Sister Mop, who is actually Sister Chrysanthemum.
  • Our Giants Are Different: Gerants, one of the four original tribes; Gerant purebloods and primes can grow to be between eight and ten feet tall, and even people with a smaller percentage of gerant blood are still unusually large.
  • Our Demons Are Different: They're incorporeal beings who can possess humans under certain circumstances. It's theorized that they're connected to the Missing, and are possibly the remnants of negative traits they didn't want and ended up exorcising from themselves.
  • Out-Gambitted: Sherzal gets completely played by Abbess Glass's last scheme posthumously executed by Nona and her friends culminating in Sherzal's own death.
  • Out of the Frying Pan: The original four tribes came to Abeth to flee their own dying star. Much later, Abeth's star is dying, and with the ships' tech lost to time and the glaciers they have no way off.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: At the climax of Grey Sister Nona subjects Thuran Tacsis to the Harm, his own torture device; the experience leaves him so weakened and debilitated that, though he's still alive by Holy Sister he's surrendered all the running of House Tacsis to his son Lano. Nona, for her part, is ashamed by what she did and, even though she knows Thuran probably deserved it, still considers the act a stain on her honor. What's more, using the flesh-bind to do it meant that she didn't have it on hand later to save Darla..
  • Precursors: The Missing, a race who inhabited Abeth before humanity arrived and whose ruins can still be found under the ice that covers most of the planet. Very little is known of them, but they're implied to have ascended to a higher plane of existence.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: Any mage, whether Marjal or Quantal, but Quantal Path-Mages are this to the extreme due to the nature of their powers. Where Marjals are adept at tasks such as the manipulation of thoughts and emotions or else control of elements like fire, earth, and water, Quantal powers fall under the lines of either subtle thread-work (tugging at "threads" that connect all of existence in order to alter reality), or else "Walking the Path", a practice that entails absorbing an enormous amount of energy from the fabric of the universe and redirecting it into whatever the Path-Mage requires. Walking the Path is an insanely dangerous task that requires the mage to both take in the power and then control it in a way that won't simply tear them and everything in a radius around them apart, and even the most experienced Path-Mages tend to end their lives as living bombs powerful enough to crack mountains open. Notably, the most important aspect of Path magic is not even knowing how to walk the Path, but how to stop walking before one takes on too much energy to control. To walk the Path more than once in a week is generally considered suicide even for the most skilled of Path-Mages.
    • Because of the immense energies involved, walking the Path is an incredibly dangerous task requiring strict concentration and control. In Holy Sister Nona uses her superior hunska speed to beat a more experienced Path-Mage to the punch, and literally pushes him from the Path before he can fully own the power he has taken in. The results are less than pretty.
    • In Holy Sister Sister Pan reveals the true reason she hasn't used her Path magic in decades: Because she started walking the path over thirty years ago, and has not left the Path in that entire time. Walking the path for a mere few steps as Nona and Ara do is enough to destroy buildings. When Sister Pan finally leaves the Path, her death kills thousands of enemies and blasts a trench meters deep and nearly a mile long.
  • Professional Killer:
    • The Noi-Guin are a notorious, secretive order of magic-using assassins who show up as antagonists at key points across the trilogy. They have ties to both Sherzal and the Tacsis family.
    • Grey Sisters can be used as this, though they're also trained as spies, detectives, and other sorts of sneaky work. It's noted that Grey Sisters are more versatile, but the average Noi-Guin is better as a pure killer, since that's all they focus on.
  • Razor Floss: One of the tools of a Grey Sister are absurdly sharp wires, which gets particular focus in Holy Sister since the final exam of Shade is setting one up and then navigating it in complete darkness. Sherzal is finally killed when she evades one trap in the Ark, only to run into Ara's wire trap and be gruesomely eviscerated.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: A surprising number of these given the Crapsack World nature of the setting. The church is corrupt and its The Empire but generally, they all try to do their jobs. Likewise, the sisters are almost universally this.
  • Red Baron:
    • Sister Cage the Shadowless.
    • All Abbesses of Sweet Mercy get a title like this after their death. Abbess Glass is "She of the Moon" and Abbess Wheel is "She of the Battle."
    • The Ice Tribe warrior Tarkax is known as 'the Ice-Spear.' Nona, however, thinks it sounds stupid and is less than impressed.
  • Red Is Violent: The Martial Sisters' habit is red, and they are the militant wing of the church.
  • Rich Bitch: Joeli Namsis, a novice of Sis background who, unlike Ara, embodies all the bad things one would expect from that background.
  • Serial Killer: Raymel Tacsis, who gets away with it by virtue of being the son of the richest man in The Empire. At least, until Nona nearly kills him.
  • Science Fantasy: Magic and demons abound, but the moon is actually a giant focus mirror put in orbit around the planet to keep the ice from swallowing it, and humans arrived in spaceships (which may or may not be magic themselves).
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Surprisingly averted. Thuran Tacsis and his son Raymel are the richest men in the Corridor, but they can't completely buy the Church or The Empire. It actually works against them as both the Archons and Emperor side with Nona because they're annoyed at the presumption they can be bought. Also something of a deconstruction; Thuran's money can genuinely buy a lot, but if he throws his weight around too much he risks stepping on the toes of other people who are at least as rich and connected as he is and who don't appreciate his antics.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Clera does when attending a Sis party as a Tacsis agent in "Bound." Even Nona (watching through Ara's eyes) is impressed.
  • She Is the King: The ruler of the Empire is always titled as Emperor, regardless of gender. Similarly, the head of a Sis family is addressed as 'Lord' whether they're a man or a woman.
  • Sink or Swim Mentor: All of the nuns of the Red Sisters are this. This includes lying to their charges, poisoning them, and worse. It's all for their own good, though.
  • Sixth Ranger Traitor: Clera turns out to be this rather than Zole.
  • Smug Snake: High Priest Jacob who is in Raymel Tacsis' pocket. This brings about his stripping of the rank as the four Archons under him actually have more authority collectively and put him in power in the first place. They severely dislike his blatant displays of corruption and toadying.
    • Raymel Tacsis believes his father's money and power will allow him to be able to rape and kill as many girls as he wants. Also, to get revenge on Nona for resisting him. This gets him killed.
  • Super-Reflexes: Hunska are not really much faster than normal people, at least not for long enough that it matters (for example, being a Hunska does not help Nona in a race against the other novices), but rather their inborn talents let them react much faster.
  • Terror Hero: Sister Cage. Everyone is terrified of her, and for good reason.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Nona is the Tomboy to Ara's Girly Girl. Downplayed in that the convent setting and the clothing and lifestyle requirements of being novices doesn't really provide room for a huge range of expression in either direction, but Ara is both more conventionally beautiful than Nona and, thanks to her aristocratic upbringing, much more comfortable with conventional trappings of femininity on those occasions they're appropriate.
  • True Companions: Nona treats all friendships like this due to never been able to connect to anyone before. Sister Kettle warns her that not everyone is the same way, and she would do well to consider more carefully who she trusts this far.
  • Truth Serum: Sister Apple can - with the help of a mage from the Academy - create pills that let the person who eats one only speak the truth.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Downplayed in Holy Sister when Sister Wheel becomes Abbess. She's as fundamentalist, and unpleasant as ever and even tries to deny Nona the Red on a technicality, but Glass' machinations ensure that she doesn't cause too much trouble and she proves there's one thing she is good at: rallying an army to war.
  • Vestigial Empire: The Empire itself once lived up to the name, controlling a good chunk of the Corridor; within the last couple of centuries, however, it's shrunk to a relatively small nation between the Sea of Marn and the Grampain Mountains, beleaguered by the Durns to the west and the Scithrowl (who play The Empire trope much straighter) to the east.
  • War Comes Home: At the end of Holy Sister, the army of the Scithrowl reaches the capital where the convent of Sweet Mercy is situated and starts a siege.
  • Warrior Monk: Or, rather, warrior nun. All of the nuns of Sweet Mercy receive at least basic combat training as part of their convent education and can serve as fighters at need, with Red Sisters (more properly called Martial Sisters) specifically being the Church's militant wing. Warrior monks are also mentioned at various points but don't get much focus because, well, all the main characters are nuns or novices.
  • Wham Line: Several, usually when one of Abbess Glass' plans comes to light. Nona picks up the knack herself.
    • Grey Sister: At the trial for Glass's heresy:
    Glass: I am here to investigate Sherzal for theft and treason.
    • Holy Sister: When Nona is confirmed as Sister Cage, and several chapters later in the vault.
    Nona: I wish to be a Holy Sister.
    Nona: The book wasn't important.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The epilogue of Holy Sister takes place some time after the book's events, and establishes what happened to the remaining nuns. Nona has become Mistress Blade, Jula has been named Sister Page and become Mistress Spirit, Clera has started several business ventures in close contact with Sweet Mercy, Ruli went back to her father's ships, and Ara became Lord Jotsis for several years before returning to the convent and Nona.
  • Wolverine Claws: Nona is able to conjure six-inch long invisible blades from her hands, able to cut open chainmail armor with ease.
  • World Half Full: By the end of the trilogy, Nona has come to see Abeth this way. Yes, it's full of terrible things and people and is probably doomed... but there's also a lot in its that's good and worth fighting for.
  • Worthy Opponent: Sister Pan and Yom Rala great each other as such during the siege of Verity in Holy Sister; Yom orders his subordinates to treat Pan with respect as well.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Abbess Glass is the undisputed master of this, especially during the trial at Sherzal's palace.
  • Younger Than They Look: Some of the powers gifted by the old blood cause people to age faster than normal, especially those of hunska blood.

Alternative Title(s): Ancestor Trilogy