Book Reviews · Fantasy · Fiction

Sistersong by Lucy Holland

King Cador’s children inherit a land abandoned by the Romans, torn by warring tribes. Riva can cure others, but can’t heal her own scars. Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, although born a daughter. And Sinne dreams of love, longing for adventure. All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold, their people’s last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. However, change comes on the day ash falls from the sky – bringing Myrdhin, meddler and magician. The siblings discover the power that lies within them and the land. But fate also brings Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear them apart. Riva, Keyne and Sinne become entangled in a web of treachery and heartbreak, and must fight to forge their own paths. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.

I first picked up a book by Lucy Holland a number of years ago, when browsing my local Waterstones – which I now incidentally work at – and saw a beautiful looking book by the name Starborn. This was under the name Lucy Hounsom, and the reason I bought it, apart from the cover and blurb, was the fact that I discovered the author had attended the same university as me and worked as a bookseller as well as a writer, and ever since I have admired the author from a distance, and eagerly awaiting any new books. All this to say, that I am so glad I picked up The Worldmaker Trilogy (which is well worth reading) all those years ago, because it led me to join Lucy’s newsletter, and thus jump at the opportunity to read her new novel, Sistersong when the eARC was released. Ancient Britain? Retelling of a folk ballad? Incredible cover? I needed no more convincing, and it absolutely lived up to my expectations.

‘I wander so long, it feels as though I’ve crossed some hidden boundary. I’ve left our world for theirs – the nameless land where goddesses sing to the stars, where lost spirits linger in the twilight.’

Sistersong is based on a traditional murder ballad which first appeared in writing in 1656, and tells the tale of a younger sister drowned by the elder out of jealousy, and you can read it here (though there are many varying editions). In her novel, Holland has taken this short ballad and created an entire world around it, and has done it with incredible skill. Truly, the whole novel feels like a tale that would be told by Myrdhin in a great hall around a fire – which happens a few times in the story itself – and I believe that was the author’s intention, with the way the narrative is framed. ‘I will tell you a story,’ begins Keyne in the first chapter. This is the third sibling, which Holland added in her telling, and whom I absolutely fell in love with. What a dynamic character! Keyne has never felt at ease in his own skin or household, wanting to be seen as a son rather than a daughter, and I would say that though the two sisters Riva and Sinne, are the namesakes of The Twa Sisters ballad, it is Keyne that carries the plot. Also, for anyone who has read it, the bonfire scene at Beltane where he dances with fire will stay with me forever.

“Brigid, Brigid, come to my home tonight.
Open the door, let Brigid come in.
Her bed is ready, her supper prepared.”

There is a very interesting dynamic in this novel between the old gods, and the power of the land, and the new Christian God, whose worship is slowly sweeping through the British Isles. Gildas, a priest, is the main source of this tension, as his presence has slowly pulled King Cador away from his ties to the land, so that crops fail, healing no longer works, the weather is hostile, and the kingdom is vulnerable to Saxon attacks. Even the reappearance of Myrdhin and his magic is not enough, and it is up to the heirs of the land to try and restore its magic before it is too late, but they also have their own problems going on, and time is shorter than they realise. The sisters all have their own affinity to magic, and I love the way their powers are described and move the story along.

Despite the fantastical elements, Sistersong feels so real, and so rooted in history, that I would happily recommend it to anyone who generally steers away from fantasy (which is ridiculous, because fantasy is the mother of all storytelling), and be confident that they would enjoy it. The attention to detail, the character development, the language itself, all meld together to create this perfect story. I had to keep putting the book down, because I knew that there would be sadness waiting at the end of it, and I didn’t want the tale to end, but what I did find when I finished it was a bittersweet feeling and the knowledge that this story will continue to sing to me long after I have turned the last page. This is where I have to admit that writing this review has been difficult, because the book has left me with a lot of emotions, and it’s hard to articulate much beyond “good book, go read it,” but I hope I have done that.

I really recommend you preorder a copy of the book, because it’s really good, and if you are interested in book launch events, there will be one for Sistersong hosted by Cymera Festival on the 1st April, and I have booked my ticket for that as well as ordered a signed copy through them, which I am very excited about! Thank you for putting up with the fangirling that I interspersed in this review, and happy reading!

Trigger warning: transphobia and blood.

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