It must be the year of retellings because this is the fifth one I’ve read in 2021. Despite the shared theme of retelling tales, each one has been wildly different, and Sistersong by Lucy Holland sings its own unique tune while expanding on a haunting folklore ballad.
Lucy Holland was inspired by a ballad titled “The Two Sisters,” which tells a story of a jealous girl who drowns her sister. The drowned sister is turned into a harp and sings of her sister’s crime to the king, who metes out punishment for the other girl. Holland used this ballad as a framework for Sistersong and added color to the tale of the two girls. But Holland also twisted the song to tell a different story, one where there were three siblings. Here is where the book sings a third note, which expands on the ballad to explain why a third sibling was struck from the song and history all together.
King Cador’s connection with the land granted him immense power as he ruled over the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia. However, when Christianity begins to spread, the King turns his back on gods and magic, and in turn, loses his connection with the land. As a result, the kingdom begins to experience longer winters, failing crops, and the threat of Saxons approaching their territory. Riva, Keyne, and Sinne as the King’s daughters begin to see the old ways clash with the new first hand and each discovers they may possess a magic of their own. The future of their kingdom will be determined by three young siblings, each called to a different path that will honor the old ways or usher in a new era.
Even though the ballad of the two sisters sets the stage for the book, Sistersong feels more like Keyne’s story. Keyne identifies as a man and his struggles in this pre-modern world led by kings is a force that drives the plot forward. He’s an amazing character and has a thoughtful, full-fledged arc. The other sisters had a part to play but their stories sound too quiet next to Keyne’s full melody. Riva and Sinne didn’t progress or shine in the way Keyne did, and their stories feel stagnant in comparison. Both certainly have hurdles of their own to overcome, but neither had progression and fell quickly to the background. They may have the starring role in “The Two Sisters” ballad, but I consider them supporting characters to Keyne’s larger story in the book.
Sistersong is a slow burn. Instead of ending with a big flashy conclusion, the story wraps up in a uniquely quiet way. It is a fitting end because the storytelling is soft and unassuming, like reading an account of events in a history book. There is an active plot and the characters are engaged, but it all seems to be happening at a distance. The story also doesn’t contain many surprises because the characters are black and white and very one-dimensional. It’s established early on whether a character will be good or bad and they stay within the lines of that role throughout the entire story. Tristan is the one character that is painted with shades of grey but does little to earn that reputation. From the moment you meet him, Tristan is sketchy and the benefit of the doubt never appears so every word and action just further cements his character. Overall the book has a mellow, straightforward air about it and at times seemed like a slice of life following three children in ancient Britain.
Sistersong marched to a different beat than I’m used to, and while I was ready to charge ahead, others may enjoy this change of pace. Holland did a fabulous job bringing the ballad to life, managing to make the story her own while also bringing in bigger themes of identity with Keyne. This is particularly impressive given how little source material there is to work with, which speaks greatly of Holland’s imagination and creativity. That being said, this story was very much not for me, but I suspect many will feel differently. Sistersong is simple but written well and I have no doubt it will be the perfect ballad for someone out there.
Rating: Sistersong – 6.0/10