Hello Humans! Welcome back to another book review where today we’ll be talking about Lucy Holland’s Celtic retelling Sistersong. The publisher was kind enough to send me a review copy back at the end of 2020 and I’m excited to tell you about it!
535 AD. In the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, King Cador’s children inherit a fragmented land abandoned by the Romans.
Riva, scarred in a terrible fire, fears she will never heal.
Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, when born a daughter.
And Sinne, the spoiled youngest girl, yearns for romance.
All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold – a last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. But change comes on the day ash falls from the sky, bringing Myrddhin, meddler and magician, and Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear the siblings apart. Riva, Keyne and Sinne must take fate into their own hands, or risk being tangled in a story they could never have imagined; one of treachery, love and ultimately, murder. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain.
This is a retelling of a traditional murder ballad – and not one I had read before picking up this book. Having now investigated fully I would say that I think it would maybe be better to go in without reading it and then looking it up afterwards. I did a brief search for roughly what the story was about and I found myself waiting for particular events to happen that actually don’t come into play until later in the book which makes the whole reading experience a little less enjoyable. Just my top reading tip for those who aren’t intimately familiar with murder ballads.
That’s not to suggest I didn’t have a good time reading this book – because for the most part I did. Some of you may know that I have a background in Ancient History and Archaeology and my particular focus was actually on Roman (and post-Roman) Britain so to read a book set in that kind of power vacuum was very interesting. I liked the way that Lucy Holland acknowledges the clash between the more traditional (pagan) practices and the newcomer Christianity. Often authors will shy away from the all-consuming nature of early Christianity, particularly in fantasy, so I liked that Holland tackled the issue head on.
The book does have plot, don’t get me wrong, but my overall impression was of seeing parts of a story unfold in almost a clip show manner. I think that’s partly due to the structure of the book – we have the three sibling’s perspectives which we jump between and there are also time jumps within the book. These time jumps are named for (and indicate) important festivals in the year such as Beltane and I enjoyed getting to see those festivals and practices on the page. I’m no expert but it did feel well researched. That quite choppy structure does make it feel like you are only seeing the most significant parts in the lives of these characters. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, it’s just not something I was necessarily expecting. There is a slice of life quality to the story which I appreciated.
I was also pleased to see trans representation within the book. I don’t comment from any place of authority on the issue – and I’ll be interested to hear a trans perspective on the book – but I have faith that Lucy Holland did her research, having listened to her podcast which has on occasion tackled the subject.
I was less fond of one of the romances within the story – I think it was just one of those that didn’t sit right with me and I wasn’t fond of how it ended, to the point where it definitely did colour my experience of reading the book. I wonder if I might feel differently on a reread, perhaps picking up on a few more cues but it just wasn’t an aspect of the book that I enjoyed.
I will lastly mention the magic which I thoroughly enjoyed. I know the idea of ‘magic is tied to the land and to the old ways’ is not new but I liked the way in which that idea played out in the book. The magic is not pervasive throughout the story but it is certainly there and the ways in which it is used (or withheld) were well considered.
Overall I enjoyed reading this book, I’m not sure if I would be keen to pick it up again immediately, but it might be one to revisit in the autumn when there’s a chill in the air and everything feels a bit closer to the magical…
My rating: 3/5 stars
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own.
Sistersong is out April 1st!