‘My hand shakes as I unwrap the bandage, which hides the old scars of the fire that changed my life.’
Set in 6th century Britain during the last days of the Britons, it follows the story of three siblings, Riv, Sinne and Keyne, who each seek their destiny in a changing world. Riv is the oldest and a truly tragic character in that she is a healer who is unable to heal the physical and mental scars left by a traumatic event during her early childhood. Furthermore, as the eldest daughter of King Cador of Dumnonia her destiny is political marriage, something she desperately seeks to avoid but does not know how. This all changes when she meets Tristan, a handsome and mysterious stranger who has come to Dumnonia as a diplomat for his own king. A romance blossoms but it is one that is stained with jealousy and blood as Riva is not the only one seeking Tristan’s affection. I found her character to be less and less appealing as the story progressed, and by book's end I outright disliked her. However, upon reflection I realise now how her hopeless situation pushes her down a dark path as she desperately clings to the only opportunity she has for freedom. I admire what Holland has done here.
‘I want adventure. I want to be lost then found. I want to fall in love – and I want my lover to take me away.’
Sinne is the youngest, and like Riva, she has magical capabilities, including the ability to use glamours to seduce and sway. She also has the gift of foresight which furthers her notions of romance and adventure and ultimately drives a wedge between the two sisters. It took me a long time to warm to Sinne. She is spoilt and almost too perfect, and of the three siblings, I found her the least interesting. That was until the latter half of the novel when Holland turns up the tension and drama tenfold. All I will say is that I was absolutely shocked by what happens.
‘My skin is clammy and I want desperately to shed it, like snakes do. I want to run free. I want out of this dim room with its dresses and prospects and Gildas’ censure. I want to be me.’
The final sibling and my favourite character in the entire novel is Keyne, the middle sibling. Keyne may appear a daughter to King Cador but he is very much a son in mind and soul. Not only does he yearn to be accepted by others abut also himself, and his apprenticeship to Mori (another very interesting character) and friendship with Gwen are key to this. Transgenderism is not something I am confident in speaking about as I have never experienced the daily challenges transgender people face, however, I do believe that Holland handles it with great care here and her message is powerful. Keyne’s journey is by far the most engrossing of the three siblings to the point that the Riva and Sinne’s stories pale in comparison. In my mind, Sistersong is no doubt Keyne’s story, and one I believe every reader should experience.
‘A new God is opening His eyes among us. And I don’t think they can be closed again.’
Sistersong is more than just a coming of age story for these three characters. There are many more plot threads at work here, including cultural identity and the conflict of faith. As Christianity sweeps across Britain, the ancient Britons’ connection to the land is severed, their culture fading. It was one of the aspects that reminded me a lot of Giles Kristian’s Lancelot and Camelot. However, unlike Kristian’s duology, here these themes are more fantastical in nature. Magic is very much real in Holland’s Ancient Britain and integral to the plot, characters and indeed the world. When the king and the land are one, the people prosper and magic is everywhere; when they are not, the people suffer and magic fades. I really liked this approach. This conflict of faith is further explored through the rivalry between the wandering druid, Myrdhin (sound familiar?) and the Christian monk, Gildas (based on a real monk by the way), who has the ear of the king and queen. Gildas is one of two main antagonists in the novel. He is fanatical in his mission to stamp out the old ways and is a constant obstacle to the three siblings’ freedom.
‘The Gewisse [Saxons] are a plague on the green, a shadow in the sun; a void swirls beneath their feet.’
Alongside the gradual erosion of the land’s magic is the looming threat of the invading Saxons. Even though they don’t show up until the last third of the novel, their presence is still felt in the first two thirds through rumours and the arrival of refugees. I really liked Holland’s approach here as it not only provides a sense of foreboding for a large part of the story, but it also gives readers time to familiarise themselves with the world and become invested in the three siblings’ stories. When the Saxons do finally appear, they do so in great numbers and their threat is further heightened by Holland’s excellent prose.
Sistersong is an excellent book. When I finished reading it, I finally looked up the story of The Twa Sisters. I am glad I waited until afterwards as it would have spoiled a large part of the story. Nonetheless, Holland makes this retelling very much her own. It is a beautiful and heart-breaking tale of family, loyalty and identity that I recommend to all readers of historical fantasy.