Book Review

Sistersong by Lucy Holland

In a magical ancient Britain, bards sing a story of treachery, love, and death. This is that story. For fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Lucy Holland’s Sistersong retells the folk ballad ‘The Twa Sisters.’

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.

Sistersong is a powerfully moving story, perfect for readers who loved Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale.

Sistersong is a wonderful novel telling the story of the three children of King Cador.  The three siblings – Riva, Keyne, and Sinne – are so very different to each other and I loved getting to know them as the novel alternates between their three perspectives.  They are friends as well as siblings and at the outset it’s hard to imagine anything really coming between them – they make a formidable team and seem know each other inside out.  They do of course occasionally use this knowledge to be deliberately cruel to each other and I loved their occasional rivalry and bickering, but they are ultimately there for each other, at least at first.  The events of the novel push that loyalty to its limits as each seeks their own path in life.

I love the setting of Sistersong which is based in a fantastical Britain of old, sometime after the Roman occupation and before Christianity has established a firm foothold although those seeds have been planted.  Magic – once abundant – is diminishing as people forgo the old ways in favour of this new religion, and there’s a sense that as people pay less attention to the land that sustains them that it provides less to them in return as their crops and harvests start to fail.  It’s quite a literal take on looking after the land and the Earth that sustains us, but a relevant and poignant point nonetheless.  It falls to these three siblings – little more than young adults – to try to hold onto their culture and to reinvigorate traditional beliefs even as those around them seek to keep them in their place, seen if they must be but definitely not heard.

This plays out particularly well in their frequent run-ins with Gildas – the priest who is trying to convert Cador and his hold to Christianity.  To say that Gildas does not get along with the three siblings is something of an understatement, and Keyne in particular is a trial to him.  I have to admit that I cheered whenever they succeeded against him – he’s not wholly evil, and yet his approach feels insidious as he seeks to convert Cador and his people to Christianity, dismissing their traditions as heathen even as their practises are adopted and cast in a new, Christian light.  He’s not above using some underhanded methods to achieve his goals, and he’s the one instantly dislikeable character in the novel – I found that I couldn’t like him even as he proves to have his uses. 

The novel does start out a little slowly as the characters are introduced and as the scene is set, and yet it’s done in such a way that when things do start to move forward at pace that the reader is fully invested in the story and in the three characters at its heart.  I cared about them (ok – Sinne is a little difficult to like at first) and I wanted to know what would happen to them and whether they could ever be accepted as they are when the odds are against them. This is particularly true of Keyne who feels that they have been born in the wrong body and who wants only to be recognised and acknowledged as their true self. Keyne stole my heart from the very beginning and their battle feels almost impossible given the time in which the novel is set.

I love the way in which the plot plays out as a stranger arrives in their midst and upsets the apple cart and as whispers of a Saxon invasion begin to circulate. These events will test the three siblings to their limits in very different ways, and Holland delivers a brilliant novel full of old magic that I became completely caught up in. I did guess some of what was coming, but Holland still had a few surprises in store. Sistersong is a novel that I highly recommend, especially if you enjoyed Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy. 


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