Review: Sistersong, Lucy Holland (2021)

The tale of three siblings, set against the backdrop of the fall of Rome and the oncoming Anglo-Saxon invasion, Sistersong by Lucy Holland is easily one of the best Young Adult historical fantasy books of the year. The novel, set in the heartlands of Devon in the sixth century, is a complex, heart-breaking, and magical retelling of the “The Two Sisters” ballad that encapsulates the landscape and the familial dichotomies of early medieval British life in a feminist retelling of the Arthurian age.

First of all, Holland’s writing is totally divine; she is able to directly relate to the reader the landscape, culture, and feelings that her characters inhabit without taking over the storyline and the focus from her narrative. From her descriptions of the fort to the forests, it is easy to imagine the world in which her story is set and can even be described as a character within itself and the power it beholds, as the wild and untamed yet essential force, in Dunbriga. Holland is incredibly well researched, and this shows throughout the novel, with the ancient festivals of Imbolc, Ēostre, Beltane, and Samhain acting as key plot markers, tracking character and story development, with their symbolic significance easily translated to the reader.

One of the key and fundamental points to the story is its historical context. Sandwiched between the fall of Rome and the oncoming Anglo-Saxon invasion, the story and characters are uniquely placed in this period of late antiquity but remain thoroughly attached to the idea of traditional and historical practices from centuries long gone. Holland is successfully able to present her story in this timeline, again making sure that it does not overwhelm nor detract from the main storyline of her characters, often using it as a tool for background development and tension building with the threat of Saxon invasion from the East. History is integral to the novel, as it builds legacy and depth to the events, emphasising the significance of this period that is often left behind and reminding you of the characters of people who were affected by the greater changes on the British landscape.

Furthermore, Holland adds a certain level of fantasy to her narrative. Although distinctly historical, she reminds us of the magic of the land that the characters inhabit, both in power and religion, remaining an undertone throughout the book but also acting as a key device to motivate characters as well as the plot. There is a level of tension created within this as the old world of magic, personified by the magician Myrdhim, wars with the incoming religion of the single God, and the prayers of Gildas. Holland displays this element of change and continuity perfectly, portraying the element of religious change as a subtlety of narrative and tone that allows you to see its effects and impacts on the main characters and plotline without overwhelming it. Even the choice to pair the new religion with the reality of magic for the ancient tribe, as seen through the enchanting Beltane fires, peaks a unique variable of storytelling and discussion surrounding religious change, presenting the unification of British faith under Christianity as almost a fall of power through magic under the pagan gods, again, complexly tied with the magic and beauty of ancient and medieval Britain and is overall unerring in its execution.

In regard to her actual characters, each one is created with complex storylines, layering of motivation and beautiful description. The three main siblings of the novel, Riva, Keyne, and Sinne are all unique and it is through their lens that we are able to see and understand the plot. Their connections as siblings remains fundamental to the workings of the book and moves the storyline forward in a way that seems natural and fulfilled, with their conflicts, loves, and motivations making up for many of the key plot points. In particular, the character of Keyne [spoilers], or as we will later find out, Constantine, is incredibly important to the novel. Not only does Holland provide here vital transgender narrative representation, but it is also done with seamless perfection and in a way in which translates to both the historical context in which the novel is set, as well as being uniquely modern and contemporary. Even the subtle changes that Holland puts forward in the use of language through the novel towards Keyne/Constantine stands as a testament to her writing, moving with delicacy from the use of she/her pronouns and proclamations of Keyne as a “sister” to he/him and proclamation of Constantine as a brother. Furthermore, Holland intimately connects these levels of personal development to his character development, allowing him to assign himself into the traditional male roles of the tribe with both success and tension, to end not only as a powerful warrior but also a rightful heir and successor to the crown of Dunbriga. Furthermore, in regard to all three siblings, particularly as they are the king’s children, the storyline of marriage, although relevant and dealt with, does not overwhelm the narrative as a key motivation for them and in fact is rarely spoken of. Instead, each are granted their own value as personified characters rather than their attachments to male individuals, even including Riva’s relationship with the handsome warrior Tristan, allowing them to remain to be seen as individuals. Overall, in regard to all three siblings, Holland is able to create her powerful narrative through her characters and is successful in making them layered, complex, and formidable.

There are some criticisms to make of the novel; although the storyline does follow the traditional ballad of “The Two Sisters”, its actual acclimation into the novel seems strange and forced. Indeed, when Sinne falls and is turned into a harp of breastbone, it feels like an imposition on both her and Keyne’s characters to force a quite brutal scene for the sake of material input. Furthermore, the plot devices following the character of Tristan, although already painted as a stranger from a rival kingdom, seemed obvious and undeveloped. From the betrayal of the hidden tunnel to his failure to protect Riva at her time of need, there was great potential for Holland’s storytelling not to follow the worn-down trails of morally grey characters that I wish could have been explored to a deeper level.

Despite these downfalls, Sistersong, is easily one of my favourite books to be released of the year so far. Its historical fantasy retelling of medieval folklore is a unique and interesting insight of a period of British history that evokes feelings of magic, beauty and power, and a sense of connection with a land we might call home. Holland’s characters are full of depth and emotions that allow them to jump directly off the page in an exploration and analysis of what it means to be siblings in a time of turmoil and tension, as well as individuals executing their own stories and developments of self-definition and expression.

Written by Melissa Kane

Sistersong was written by Lucy Holland and published with Macmillan in 2021.

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