Sistersong by Lucy Holland Spoiler-Free + Spoiler Review

Trigger Warnings: transphobia, misgendering, fire relate trauma

‘Sistersong’ is Lucy Holland’s debut novel and was published in 2021, it currently has an average raring of 4.05 on Goodreads, and its genres are: historical, fantasy, mythology, retellings.

A retelling based on a the old, English ballad ‘The Twa Sisters’, a story of betrayal and deceit between two sisters, finally giving a voice to those woman. as well as a narrative to the rumoured third sibling. The story follows Kenye, Sinne and Riva, three children of a King whose kingdom is under threat of a Saxon invasion, made worse by their weakening connection to the magic after Gilaid, a Catholic priest, arrived and began preaching. Together they must face threats from the outside and within as they scramble to keep their people safe and heal together.

You can read the different versions of the ballad here.

‘Her hair was gold and gold he strung, swift the river runs, her bones were white, he wasted none, though cold and dead, how well she sung, deep the river runs’

Spoiler-Free

I’m glad I spotted this on a shelf across the bookstore because not only is it a physical stunner, but the inside is just as fantastic. Whilst I found it a little slow to start, I was soon hooked and immersed in this historic setting full of complex characters and an interesting magic system.

The narrative of this switches between the three sibling’s perspectives every chapter, and rather than feeling complicated or confusing it’s refreshing. I really enjoyed hearing from all three, considering their different experiences, ages, traumas or “problems” felt really well handled.

Whilst one of the core romances in this wasn’t the kind I traditionally enjoy, it was interesting and honestly I didn’t expect it to the end the way that it did, however there another romance that was sweet and well built, and was the true romance of the novel. Yet, the true joy and love of this book wasn’t romantic but platonic. The focus on sibling relationships is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and unlike some other fictional sibling I truly believed them and their interactions, each of the three is unique and their relationships with each other are different but also cohesive – it was a joy to read and experience.

Whilst the story itself is slow to start, it builds quickly once you understand who each character is and their background, and by the end you’re wishing it wasn’t going so quickly. I will note that if you’re looking for great detail in world-building: especially in a magic system, this likely won’t be for you as whilst this is explored, it’s not in great detail.

Truthfully, this feels like YA’s answer to Circe (read my review here), and I think Holland smashed it in this regard. There was forgotten British mythology revived, complex characters, interesting relationships and a sense of magic that filled this book. I highly recommend it to any YA readers looking for a standalone fantasy-historical fiction-mythology retelling mix, and can only hope you’ll love it as much I did.

Spoiler Review

This book has definitely left it’s mark on me. I often find myself comparing other YA reads, actually not only just YA reads, to this one in the hope they’ll capture a glimmer of the brilliance Holland managed to create. It is easily one of the best retellings I’ve ever read, even if I wasn’t aware of the old folk ballad this was based on before, but since reading it I believe she’s done a fantastic job in reimagining it and bring something new to the mythology of the piece.

First, I’d like to note I’m really glad we’re getting a YA fantasy book set in Europe (Britain to be more exact), that doesn’t fall into the old ‘generic-European fantasy setting’ we’ve seen for so long. Whilst this setting definitely shares things in common with that, it also feels fresh and that is worth acknowledging.

Now, lets focus on the meat and bones of this story: the siblings. Constantine (formerly known as Kenye), Sinne and Riva were all great in their own ways and despite the perspective switching between the three of them I never at any point found myself wanting to skip one of them as each added something to the story. Inevitably, Constantine’s story was the most enticing with their journey as a transgender man and relationship with magic, ultimately his story was one of discovery and was the part that held this book together – without it, the book would lack something special.

However, Riva and Sinne’s stories also have their positives. They were believable as sisters and I enjoyed them both for what they brought to the narrative, and whilst Riva at times was a bit too predictable and wilfully ignorant I did very much believe that was all possible due to the way she grappled with trauma. Sinne was much more fun to read about (other than her ending because jesus that hurt), and her relationships with everyone around her were rich and vibrant, and I particularly enjoyed her friendship with Osred – she’s a very close second to Constantine.

The differing relationships were great as well as we watched Riva grow more distanced from the two, but the love they all had for each other was always evident. Riva and Sinne’s relationship at first was a bit boring with the two seemingly fighting over the same love interest, but it grew interesting as we discovered the cause for the fire and it soon became an exploration of blame, trauma and resentment. By the end, it was hard to not want to blame Riva and hate her for all she had done, but it’s important to remember how she suffered previously and how this obviously impacted her.

Other characters were interesting at times, with a few who I wished were a bit more fleshed out. I should note I never really like Tristan as a character as he felt a bit bland at times, with his ending being lacklustre (and I very much didn’t believe him to be sincere), I just think there were possible interesting avenues with him that unfortunately weren’t explore. However, other characters made up for this with Osred and Gilaid being highlights for very different reasons, but nonetheless great to read. The character of Mori and Myrdhin, whilst slightly stereotypical at times with them being the mage who lives in the forest and acts as a mentor to the children – it’s a bit too conventional -also grew to be more interesting when he brutally tore up Sinne. This was the morally grey character I wanted to know more about, and if Holland ever releases a novella about him I will be snatching it up.

The romance truthfully was a mixed bag, if you’re looking for the kind of stereotypical YA romance then Tristan and Riva will be your favourites: stuck in a ‘love triangle’, insta-love, bit cringey at times; I honestly didn’t love the pairing and secretly hoped Riva would dump him by the end but I’m not upset about this romance either – it serves it’s purpose just fine. The true romantic stars of this book are Constantine and Gwen who were interesting and I rooted for them to grow together after that first unfortunate meeting, and I’m glad they got the ending they deserved.

I think there is something to be said about the exploration of the relationship with magic. The idea that you lose magic once you turn your back on your culture to adopt the invasion of Christianity, and from someone who was effectively an archaic missionary was telling, and I don’t think we have to think very hard to understand what Holland is writing about here – it was effective. The actual magic system itself was great, however there is no great detail on it so if you’re looking for a complex magic system this isn’t for you. The stories connected to magic, especially the Dwarf King tale, were enchanting whilst the fate of Sinne was suitably horrifying so I felt Holland achieved a great balance in the storytelling of magic.

Truthfully, the book at times falls short due to it’s pacing and fulfilling a stereotypes. As I’ve mentioned previously with both the character of Mori and Myrdhin who I only grew interested in just as they started to leave, and Tristan who I felt was stuck in the traditional YA love interest trope who could have been more interesting. The pacing was a little bit off too with a slow start, fast middle and an ending that had a lacklustre final battle.

The book has a lot going for it: interesting characters, a great retelling and it proves everyone who believes you can’t include good transgender representation in settings that aren’t modern wrong. Holland is an author to watch, her debut novel is full of brilliance and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

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