by Lucy Holland
‘I am as light and am as dark,
I am as birth and am as breath,
I am as flesh and bone and brain,
Look inside and know my name.’
Just as I was beginning to think no one writes stories like that any more, along comes Lucy Holland’s tale of war, valour, love, betrayal and female power – and weakness.
In a wonderful blend of history, myth, magic and mysticism, Sistersong takes us to Dark Age Britain, to spin us on the Wheel of the Year in a joyride of everything that makes fantasy worth reading. Set in Dumnonia (today’s Devon and Cornwall) in the early sixth century, the novel introduces us to three sisters, daughters of the British king, Cador, and his queen, Enica, who is of Roman descent.
‘The shadow has four legs and it snorts, breath billowing from unseen nostrils. I try to scream and manage only a whimper. The Horned One has sent retribution for my blasphemy.’
Riva, crippled in one hand and foot by a fire, is a healer unable to heal herself. She dreams of love and a good marriage but is almost resigned to a future in a nunnery. Keyne desires to be a man and a warrior, and wears men’s clothes to hide her femininity. Sinne, the youngest, is beautiful and can use her glamour to charm any man. But the sisters have other, secret abilities, waiting to be awakened by the threat of invasion. The slow spread of Christianity across Britain has weakened the people’s close bonds with the earth. Magic, the old magic of the land and the elements, is dying. Swayed by the preaching of the priest Gildas, King Cador is not the force he once was; and casting his eye on the kingdom are Cerdic, King of the West Saxons, and his son Cynric.
‘Wthout warning, the forest transforms into rough walls. They are familiar – this feels like a memory . . . . but not my own. Because it is hot here, too hot. Unnatural flames skip across bare stone, jump hungrily onto my boot. The leather smokes and I yell, scrabbling at the laces . . . .’
However, waging the war of words and ideas with Gildas is Myrdhin (Merlin), friend of the king and still beloved by the Dumnonii as a great storyteller. And it is Myrdhin who will help the sisters realise their true destiny, the magic of the elements and of the seasons.
Into the girls’ lives comes Tristan, a brave and handsome warrior, who gains Cador’s trust and wins Riva’s love. Sinne is jealous because she has wild dreams of being with him. Only Keyne remains cautious. Immune from male charms, she is learning swordplay from Myrdhin and preparing for the day when the Saxons invade.
‘ “Withdraw!” I roar. The silver still blazes on my wrist; I thrust a fist into the air. “Withdraw!” Bodily, Nimue and I force our way through the crush of men, growing bloodier by the second. Not all the blood is Saxon.’
But whose magic is the greatest, that of Myrdhin and the old world, or that of Gildas with his visions of heaven, sin and a fiery hell? Or could it be a mystic awakening of the three sisters’ powers? Whichever is the winner, it will lead Dumnonia into a great danger which only strong leadership can avert or mitigate.
Sistersong is a blend of fact and fantasy, a story of a time in history of which very little is known. This allows Lucy Holland to draw from the earliest texts, the legends, and to cleverly invent the rest for herself. Neither Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, Sistersong is historical fantasy at its best, enthralling, dark at times, and well worth reading. I loved it!
‘In him the eldest placed her trust,
Swift the river runs,
Believing love would come from lust,
She closed her ears, she knew she must,
Deep the river runs.
One day the sisters walked alone,
Swift the river runs.
The youngest begged her to come home,
She begged her sister to atone,
Deep the river runs.’