Sistersong by Lucy Holland
I read less fantasy these days, but when I do, there’s no type I enjoy more than that with an Arthurian or Dark Ages setting. Sistersong is exactly that, and I found it hard to stop reading this novel which occupies that fertile fantasy crossover land between YA and adult reading, it works for both.
It’s the middle of the 6th century, the Romans are gone from Britain. Dumnonia in the west country is one of the ancient kingdoms of England, ruled over by King Cador, who had fought at the Battle of Badon where Arthur and his army routed the Saxon invaders, halting their progress westwards across the land. The Saxons are still out there, biding their time, growing their forces, the other tribes are restless too.
Cador and his queen, Enica, have no sons, only daughters; three feisty young women, each totally different in character. Riva has become a skilled healer, but can’t heal herself – her hand and foot were injured in a fire – with her scarred limbs few see her beauty. Keyne is tall and lithe and dresses as a boy – she would be the king’s son, but Cador doesn’t see her that way. Sinne is the youngest, spoilt and capricious, but dreams that her prince will come.
They have all noticed that things are changing, the magic isn’t as strong as it once was. Ever since the priest Gildas was invited into the hold, Cador and Enica have started to come under his influence. Gildas uses his wiles and the threat of fire and brimstone to persuade those who will listen that the one God of Christianity is the only way, that using magic is evil. There are increasing clashes between Gildas and the three sisters, which initially come to a head at the pagan festival of Imbolc as the novel begins.
Keyne uses a hidden passage to exit the hold when s/he needs space, finding a cottage in the woods where an old woman, Mori, will begin to teach her how to become the person s/he wants to be, and how to harness the power of the land. When Riva also uses the passage and gets lost in the forest outside the hold, it will be some days before she is found, rescued by a handsome stranger, Tristan, and his mute companion, Os. When Riva returns with Tristan, Cador welcomes him into the hold as an envoy of King Vortipor in Wales, but is he really? Of course Riva falls for him, and Sinne is jealous – I’ll leave that with you.
The one other key character is Merlin, here called Myrdhin, who returns at Ēostre – the festival of the dawn goddess held at the spring equinox, (note, predating the Christian Easter). With his arrival the scene is set. Sinne is our narrator:
‘Master Myrdhin, I take it,’ a cool voice says.
People part for the crow and Gildas glides through as if he’s Father himself. His black robes swirl in his wake, incongruously pristine given our muddy pathways. I chance a glance at my hems and wince.
That is indeed one of my names,’ Myrdhin says pleasantly into the sudden silence.
Gildas raises an eyebrow. ‘A single name is honest. Only a liar has need of more.’ No one makes a sound, but it’s as if a sign passes through the gathered people.
‘Names have power,’ Myrdhin ripostes and I realize with a twinge of thrill that this is a duel. ‘As you and your god well know.’
More come to watch the exchange. The priest’s smile is the opposite of Myrdhin’s: a mirthless curve. ‘He is not my God, but all of ours, whether Britain’s people hearken to Him, or not.
‘And do they?’ Myrdhin asks, a crack spidering across his casual smile. It looks a little more like Gildas’s now. ‘Because I’ve heard of you and the cunning whispers you pour into powerful ears. Tell me: is your great work beating fruit?’
The author deftly weaves all of these elements into a breathtaking and magical story full of swords and sorcery, loyalty and betrayal and the heartbreak that comes with it. Each sister will play a key part in their tribe’s destiny, using the power of the land that lies within them, learning with Myrdhin’s help how to use it for better or worse. The narration alternates between the sisters. We get to know each of them intimately, but to me the strongest of the trio was Keyne, whose wish to live as man develops throughout the narrative in a semi-natural, semi-magical way, although it is a case of two steps forward, one step back on many occasions, Keyne’s gradual transition is handled well.
Holland’s plot was inspired by a 19th C murder ballad, The Two Sisters, but I won’t tell its story here as it would spoil the story too much. Her research into pagan festivals, the myth of Merlin, the coming of the Saxons and Christianity to the west country shows through in the detail incorporated into Sistersong. The 6th century cleric, Gildas existed, and is said to have sparred with Arthur. He is most known for his polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, in which he strongly criticises five British kings, some of whom are mentioned in this novel – Vortipur and Constantine included. The Saxon King Cerdic and his son Cynric also existed. Meanwhile, Myrdhin’s return coincides with the land being rained on by ash – there was a series of volcanic eruptions during this period, which some say gave the Dark Ages their name. Lastly, Holland herself lives close to the remnants of a sub-Roman settlement in Devon, so had yet more inspiration on her doorstep for her retelling of the ballad in this early setting.
Yes, Lucy Holland takes liberties with all these personages and historical events from the 6th century, but weaves them together with earth magic and the mythology of Merlin to build an absolutely riveting novel with a refreshingly brilliant hero/ine in Keyne for our times. Superb stuff!
Source: Review copy – thank you! Lucy Holland, Sistersong (Pan MacMillan, 2021) hardback, 416 pages.
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