Genre: Historical Fantasy Age Range: Adult Star rating: 4 stars Series: standalone with companion book
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.
Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.
SISTERSONG is a book set in the Dark Ages, when we have don’t have much surviving written text (comparative to other eras) to construct a picture of what happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the British Isles, it was a time of fragment kingdoms and conquest, of tensions between the older religions and the expansion of Christianity.
Lucy Holland (who has also written secondary world, epic fantasy under Lucy Hounsom) manages to capture this world of uncertainty and conflict perfectly. She really brought pre-Saxon England to life, a world lived in the shadow of the former Roman Empire, without the resources and technology to keep it up. The book managed to give you hope that the Britons would endure and ultimately win despite even the vague history of the period I know. I liked how the final chapter acknowledged that.
You don’t really learn much about it in school, and the way its taught makes you feel like it’s largely guesswork. I am certain it isn’t, but that’s my enduring impression of pre-Norman England from school “eh, we think it was like this, but there’s a lot of feeling around in the dark”. This book feels really grounded in research and fact thanks to small details about objects and buildings (and yet another to add to the “I doubt whoever wrote the school curriculum for this period had much expertise in the Dark Ages” list!)
Apparently it is a retelling of a “murder ballad” called The Twa Sisters. (I have no idea what constitutes a murder ballad vs “regular” tragic poetry from the Early Medieval period, but it sounds super cool!) I’ve never read or heard of that ballad, so I have no idea if it’s a close retelling or not. Maybe people who know the story will have noticed things I didn’t, or squeal over how certain bits were interpreted.
Even without knowing the story, I pretty much immediately worked out who one of the characters really was and how that played into the ending. However, it’s one of those things that I can’t work out if it was deliberate foreshadowing and unease, or if I just don’t trust anyone in books to be who they say they are if they arrive with nebulous motives.
Something I always find interesting when engaging with these sorts of books is how my faith plays into it. SISTERSONG absolutely is coming down on the side of the ancient pagan religions of Britain, and portraying the Christian priest and his faith as intolerant – and so there’s this tug of war in me as I read. And it takes a lot of skill for a writer to create that, to make me deeply root for the characters to triumph over the person representing my own faith.
A sort of companion book has been announced, a retelling of the Wild Hunt, to come next year, and I shall be looking forwards to it.