[Review] Lucy Holland’s Sistersong
Stories have power…and the truth will out
The origins of fairy and folk tales are never as polished as we imagine them to be when we are children. We picture princesses finding true love and adventure, escaping the confines of her sheltered life with the help of a prince. The truth of them is…more complicated. Lucy Holland’s Sistersong reimagines the old British folk ballad of “The Twa Sisters” into something rich with depth and emotion, flipping every traditionally held view of such tales on its head and straight into the hearts of modern audiences.
For the unfamiliar, “The Twa Sisters” is an old folklore murder ballad which recounts, with some variation depending on version and location, the tale of two sisters who venture down near a body of water. The elder sister pushes the younger in and refuses to help her out again, resulting in the younger’s death. When her body is found, someone takes it and transforms it into an instrument of some sort which then begins to sing the tale of the dead girl’s fate. It is a grim, beautiful, tragic story of jealousy and rage and justice almost no matter where it comes from, but in Lucy Holland’s hands it takes on new life.
Sistersong tells the story of Keyne, Riva, and Sinne, three daughters of an ancient king, as they struggle to find their place in a land whose tides are shifting away from long-held beliefs in the power of magic and connection to the land and more toward the domineering force of a preacher who proports to be spreading the word of God. All while facing the ever-increasing threat of war with Saxons. Each sibling has a unique ability that connects them to their homeland. Riva, whose body is damaged by a fiery accident she can’t clearly remember, is a healer; Keyne, who harbors a secret inner turmoil, can see the patterns of the land and wants nothing more than to learn the ways of battle and to live freely in the world without shame; Sinne, the youngest of them all who yearns for love and adventure and to see the world, might be able to see the future, can cast glamours, and even has some control over an element of her own.
When a charismatic stranger named Tristan saves Riva’s life and returns her to her homeland, the town is thrown into turmoil and relationships are tested to their limits.
I have never come across a book quite like Sistersong. It effortlessly weaves a tale that leaves you spellbound with characters who tell the story through alternating perspectives at its heart that are so developed they may as well be in the room with you. At another time in my life I might have more closely identified with Riva, whose relationship with her own damaged body and her grasping blindly onto a love that may or may not be using her for its own gain I am all too familiar with, but the beating core of this story is Keyne. While I can’t speak from personal experience, Keyne felt important and original.
Having a trans, queer character at the center of a story like this — much less a trans character with such power who gets to have a happy ending (no more spoilers than that!) — is remarkable and, perhaps most importantly, it felt seamless. Keyne’s identity struggle is central to his development, yes, but he is never made to be a joke or a cheap grab. His very presence demands respect from even those who wish him dead or forgotten and condemned to hell. There’s nothing quite like the shift that happens when you become fully comfortable in your identity, and Keyne’s is as palpable as the changing of tides and land.
Keyne isn’t even the only queer trans character in this story! Both he and his counterpart and friend Mori are some of the most powerful people the land of Dumnonia has to offer. Neither is Riva the only disabled character; Tristan’s partner Osred is mute and successfully communicates with anyone willing enough to learn his methods.
While it isn’t perfect in every aspect of its execution, this is the way to bring classic tales to modern audiences in a world that is constantly adapting to new ideas and identities. Folk tales and their ilk in particular are ripe for reimaginings like Sistersong. To shape them the way Holland does is to return to their roots. And to return to their roots is to reach into the heart of what makes them so lasting and powerful.
The plot and characters on offer in Sistersong are a rich tapestry, and Holland’s respect for the material she weaves with is obvious. I can only hope the story of Riva, Keyne, and Sinne brings comfort to some in a way it unexpectedly did for me.
I would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.