Lucy Holland’s Sistersong is a folk tale retelling in the tradition of Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart. Set in Dark Ages Britain, it tells of three siblings, children of the king of an English tribe that’s beset by enemies from without and within. It’s a tale suffused with magic and family rivalries, retelling the ancient British folk ballad, The Twa Sisters.
What Is Sistersong by Lucy Holland?
Sistersong is narrated by the voices of three siblings, the children of King Cador. The book’s chapters alternate between each sibling, and through them, we learn of a beleaguered tribe hanging on in changing world. King Cador’s kingdom is rooted in magic, but that magic is fading as the king turns his back on the old ways. A Christian priest, Gildas, has moved into the castle at the bidding of Cador’s wife. His presence is changing how things are done in the kingdom, and Gildas sees the old traditions as blasphemy.
Enemies wait outside the gates. The Romans have departed and Saxon forces are spreading across the country, bringing tribes to their banner as they go. The children of Cador are trying to understand their position in an ever-shifting world. The three are coming into their birthright, whilst the very nature of that birthright is being challenged.
Each of them has a particular relationship with the enigmatic Myrdhin, a druid of uncertain power. One thing that is certain is that there is no love lost between Myrdhin and the Gildas. Myrdhin wishes that the children maintain their links to the land, but to what end? And what will this mean for the Kingdom of Cador?
To add further intrigue, the arrival of Tristan, a warrior from another kingdom, sets sisters Sinne and Riva against each other. The two sisters are in possession of a secret, though they start unaware of it. Quarreling over Tristan sets them on a collision course that will have repercussions for the family and the entire Kingdom.
Why Read Sistersong by Lucy Holland?
Sistersong is a slow-burning novel, but one that is white-hot by its end. It took me a while to feel my way into it, but it was thoroughly worth preserving. The three central narrators are brilliantly described. You very much have the sense that they are real people. Lucy Holland allows us to see their innermost thoughts. We come to love them, revel in their triumphs, and feel their pain when things go wrong. The interplay between the three is central to the success of the story and the fate of the Kingdom of Cador.
The setting is also superb. The old English traditions and pagan rituals crashing up against the wall of Gildas’s unwavering faith in God shows a nation and set of ideals in decline. The earth-centered magic adds depth to the novel’s mysticism and the sense that we are reading a traditional folk tale. The spirits of Arthur and Merlin stand watch over this novel, but Lucy Holland’s interpretation and reweaving of such tales is innovative, impressive, and uniquely hers.
I’m actually having difficulty in explaining why I enjoyed the novel so much. Sistersong is beautifully constructed with everything supporting something else within the story’s structure. To describe why one particular facet works risks spoiling the details of the entire construction.
If you like folk tale retellings, you’ll love this book. If you enjoy stories where magic is rooted in the power of the earth, you’ll love this book. If you like love stories with a dark twist, you’ll love this book. If you enjoy political intrigue and power struggles, you’ll love this book. If you enjoy chaotic battle scenes, with clashing swords, galloping horses, and heroic last stands, you’ll love this book too. The book is full of secrets and revelations. Some of which, we as readers are privy to before many of the other characters, giving us a sense of knowledgeable satisfaction. Others we are completely oblivious to, allowing us to revel in the surprise. The last 200 pages of the book are utterly compelling, and it was very, very hard to put down.
Sistersong raises the retelling bar to new heights. It’s a modern interpretation of an old tale, albeit one that was completely new to me. The novel highlights the power of storytelling and how fresh perspectives can be found on stories that are centuries old. Rooted in the past but most definitely a novel informed by the present, Sistersong is beautiful and chilling in equal measure, and I thoroughly recommend it.
If you enjoyed this review, do check out some of my other book reviews.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.