Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Reviewed by Annabel

Lucy Holland’s impeccably researched novel combines the story of a 19th Century murder ballad, ‘The Two Sisters’ with Dark Ages post-Arthurian history, mixing in a good dose of fantasy. This combination made Sistersong a spell-binding read, occupying that fertile fantasy land that crosses over between YA and adult books, that was hard to put down.

Come with me back to the 6th century, after the Romans have left Britain. The ancient west country kingdom of Dumnonia is ruled by King Cador, of King Arthur’s bloodline. Cador had fought at the Battle of Badon where Arthur’s army pushed back the Saxon invaders, halting their gradual westwards conquest of the land. However, these are troubled times for the troubled tribes of the west, the Saxons are still out there biding their time and growing their armies.

Cador and his queen, Enica, have only daughters; three feisty young women, each totally different in character. Riva has become a skilled healer, but can’t heal herself – her hand and foot were injured in a fire – with her scarred limbs few see her beauty. Keyne is tall and lithe and dresses as a boy – she would be the king’s son, but Cador doesn’t see her that way, despite knowing s/he is different. Sinne is the youngest, spoilt and capricious, but dreams that her prince will come.

They have all noticed that things are changing, the magic isn’t as strong as it once was. Ever since the priest Gildas was invited into the hold, Cador and Enica have started to come under his influence, and the old ways are beginning to fade. Gildas uses his wiles and the threat of fire and brimstone to persuade those who will listen that the one God of Christianity is the only way, that the use of magic and worship of pagan deities is evil. There are increasing clashes between Gildas and the three sisters, which initially come to a head at the pagan festival of Imbolc as the novel begins when Keyne’s masculine attire is removed.

Keyne uses a hidden passage to exit the hold when s/he needs space, finding a cottage in the woods where an old witchy woman, Mori, will begin to teach her how to become the person s/he wants to be, and how to harness the power of the land. When Riva follows her one time and gets lost in the forest outside the hold, it will be some days before she is found, rescued by a handsome stranger, Tristan, and his mute companion, Os. When Riva returns with Tristan, Cador welcomes him into the hold as an envoy of King Vortipor in Wales, but is he really? Of course, Riva falls for him, and Sinne is jealous – and this sows the seed that will lead to tragedy. I’ll leave that with you.

The remaining key character is Merlin, here called Myrdhin, who returns at Ēostre – the festival of the dawn goddess held at the spring equinox. With his arrival the scene is set. 

‘Master Myrdhin, I take it,’ a cool voice says.
People part for the crow and Gildas glides through as if he’s Father himself. His black robes swirl in his wake, incongruously pristine given our muddy pathways. I [Sinne] chance a glance at my hems and wince.
That is indeed one of my names,’ Myrdhin says pleasantly into the sudden silence.
Gildas raises an eyebrow. ‘A single name is honest. Only a liar has need of more.’ No one makes a sound, but it’s as if a sign passes through the gathered people.
‘Names have power,’ Myrdhin ripostes and I realize with a twinge of thrill that this is a duel. ‘As you and your god well know.’
More come to watch the exchange. The priest’s smile is the opposite of Myrdhin’s: a mirthless curve. ‘He is not my God, but all of ours, whether Britain’s people hearken to Him, or not.
‘And do they?’ Myrdhin asks, a crack spidering across his casual smile. It looks a little more like Gildas’s now. ‘Because I’ve heard of you and the cunning whispers you pour into powerful ears. Tell me: is your great work beating fruit?’

The author deftly weaves all of these elements into a breath-taking and magical story full of swords and sorcery, loyalty and betrayal and the inevitable heartbreak that comes with it. Holland alternates the narration between the sisters, each of whom will play a key part in their tribe’s destiny, using the power of the land that lies within them learning with Myrdhin’s help how to use it for better or worse. We get to know each of them intimately, but to me the strongest of the trio was Keyne, whose wish to live as a man develops throughout the narrative in a semi-natural, semi-magical way. It is a case of two steps forward, one step back on many occasions, but Keyne’s gradual transition is handled well.

I won’t explain the story of the 19th C murder ballad, The Two Sisters, here as it would spoil the story too much, but there is much to comment on about Dark Ages history as woven into this novel. Holland’s research into pagan festivals, the myths of Merlin and legacy of King Arthur, the coming of the Saxons and Christianity to the west country all show through in the depth of detail incorporated into Sistersong

Most notably, the 6th century cleric, Gildas existed, and is ‘said’ to have sparred with Arthur. He is most known for his polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, in which he strongly criticises five British kings, Vortipur and Constantine mentioned in the novel included. Cador, the Duke of Cornwall who was succeeded by his son Constantine, did exist and fought against the Saxon King Cerdic and his son Cynric. Meanwhile, Myrdhin’s return coincides with the land being rained on by ash – there was a series of major volcanic eruptions during this period, which adds to the mystery of the Dark ages. Lastly, Holland herself lives close to the remnants of a sub-Roman settlement in Devon, so had yet more inspiration on her doorstep for to aid in her retelling of the ballad in this earlier setting.

Yes, Lucy Holland does take liberties with all these personages and historical events from the 6th century. However, she binds them together with earth magic and the mythology of Merlin to build an absolutely riveting fantasy novel with a refreshingly brilliant hero/ine in Keyne for our times. Highly recommended.

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Annabel is co-founder and an editor of Shiny New Books. Her favourite Merlin/Myrdhin is Nicol Williamson in the 1981 film Excalibur.

Lucy Holland, Sistersong (MacMillan, 2021) ISBN 9781529039030, hardback, 416pp..

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