Sistersong is the debut novel from Lucy Holland. Set in Dumnonia, the Celtic kingdom which lasted between the 4th-8th century in what is now South West England, it follows the three children of the king (introduced as Riva, Synne, and Keyne), as they come of age and start to see the word “as it is”.
The world now is far from the one the siblings grew up in. Threatened by the surrounding Saxons, losing connection to the land’s magic, and waining religious beliefs all give this book an excellent backdrop. The world that Holland constructs (and the people she puts in it) are granular and realised. Holland believes a world into being, almost effortlessly. Dialog never feels forced, and the relationships between the siblings are rendered wonderfully.
“Fantasy” literature is a broad scope, and books like Sistersong do it justice by creating these complex, real characters. Although the book is set in an historical-fantasy setting, it is just a setting. I don’t think I’ve read a book that gives such, almost casual, voice to figures who might otherwise be voiceless. The prominence of trans, or gender identity, themes in this book came across as far more important than anything else. But still, other elements and people and their relationships come through.
Yeah, there’s magic, but even if there’s magic there’s still siblings who argue, and parents who don’t accept when their children grow up, and men who only want one thing (sex). I would have a hard time putting this book into any particular genre
Despite this excellent character work and writing, the pacing was off for me. The first and last third of the book felt right: things moved along at the right pace. Though I definitely felt the book swerve after maybe 100 pages. I feel like a certain pathway for the plot was set up, and then we just hopped over to another story. This felt jarring.
The middle third felt a little aimless at times, and without more of the world to investigate, or seeing things change, it felt like a slog to get through. The world painted is pretty bleak: the weather isn’t great, there’s a threat of a foreign invasion, and there’s generally a lot of mistrust. I don’t know if Holland is trying to create this feeling of claustrophobia or fear, but it’s all tension with no real consequence. It’s exaggerated by the more focused chapters on either side. For a long time… nothing happens.
Removing content from a creative project is hard. Especially when you spent ages making it. I think this book could have benefited from a bit more even pacing, and more ruthless copy editor.
Then again, maybe Holland wanted a book driven entirely by character, where plot is just a thing that happens in the background. That’s a fine aspiration, but it didn’t feel consistent.
Despite that, I enjoyed the themes: family, relationships, coming of age, and identity. They’re themes that are strong in our oldest stories and ballads as humans, and they’re as relatable now as they’ve ever been (apparently). Holland his tried to give new depth or new voice to an existing story - and has done so without being preachy, or really without making it a thing.
Read this book. 3.5 ⭐