Edited by Jonathan Strahan
Solaris, 12 May 2022
Available as: PB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Sistersong and to Jamie and Stephen at Black Crow for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.
Sistersong is a generously imagined and well told story rooted in the sub-Roman period, when Britain was no longer defended by the Empire but "England" had not yet formed. It's a story of family, love, revenge and treachery but above all I think a story of becoming what one is - and the costs doing that can accrue.
This period of this book is sometime described as the "dark ages" - a term originally used because of the lack of contemporary written records, but which is now avoided because to many it suggests that it was barbarism and decay, which (as this book shows) it was not. It's also sometimes seen the "age of Arthur", a British leader defending his people against the invading Saxons. Again, though, the historical records are scant. This gives an author a great deal of room and Holland takes full advantage, placing this story in a definable place - the kingdom of Dumnonia, in what is now South West England - and associating it with real people (her King, Cador, his successor Constantine, and their Saxon opponents). To these she adds a conflict between the old religion of Celtic paganism and the new Christianity represented by the priest Gildas - also a real person, who wrote one of the few contemporary histories of Britain. (I loved the way that Gildas's actual habit of denouncing pretty much everybody in his writings carries through to acrimonious relationships with nearly everyone here.)
The main focus of Sistersong is though not on the historical characters but on the fictional Riva, Keyne and Sinne. Cador's three children are vividly portrayed and only too plausible. The story is told from their viewpoints, Holland switching between them - shifts which sometimes preserve the flow of events, sometimes deliberately jar them, but which always illuminate, showing an event from two or even three perspectives as well as giving the reader a fuller picture than any of the characters have.
Of the three, Riva and Sinne are the "twa sisters" of the traditional murder ballad which, as as Holland has explained, was the inspiration for the book: Keyne is the one the ballad left out, for reasons which become clear. It's the relationships between them which really drive the story, each wanting something different.
One seeks love and adventure.
Another, injured and (as she sees it) disfigured in a fire as a child, retreats into books and her magical talent for healing, but deep inside, may yearn for other things.
The third would lead, but is in a society where that seems unlikely, and fears that society seems likely to impose.
The ups and downs of their relationships both affect and illuminate the wider political events - war, invasion, religious conflict and the loss of magic - which will determine the future of Dumnonia and, later, of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which will become England.
I loved the way that in this book, Holland foregrounds the struggles of the three relatable (if at times frustrating) young people who are doing their "growing ups" just as the tides of history lap the walls of their hill-fort. Both sides of the story are urgent, and nobody really understands what is going on. It may be tempting to assume that we, privileged 21st century readers, know how things turned out eventually and so understand everything. But no. This is such an unknown period, and Holland so cleverly brings in different factors (I don't want to do spoilers!) that nothing is certain - except love, change, and loss. Family love and romantic love. Personal loss as childhood familiarity gives way to new battle lines: wider loss as the old ways are challenged and change. (But not without a fight!)
I just loved Sistersong, which portrays a complex historical situation without painting heroes and villains (if there were a villain in this book, it might be Gildas who perhaps appears at times as slightly monomaniacal - though once the full truth about him is made known, the reader may revise this point of view). There are nods to what people will recall of the Arthurian stories (especially with one character) but this isn't an attempt to "retell" those - Holland instead creates a world here with echoes in history and in other sources, but which is fully her own.
Overall, a compelling story filled with magic, romance, and adventure and with many contemporary resonances.
For more information about Sistersong, see the publisher's website here. You can buy Sistersong from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.
The narrator is preoccupied by her father's illness and her attempts to check up on him back at home and in hospital. Her concerns about being out of phone coverage and unable, when she does get through, to get any update, add a sense of tension and an air of being out of contact. She's already suffering bad dreams and these, combined with a suspicion that not all is well with the boyfriend, set us up for things to go wrong at any moment.
It's clear that the narrator is far from 100% onboard with the bat project, and really seems to have little in common with her boyfriend, but that fact seems to shrink in importance as the bat walk itself morphs into something folk-horror adjacent at the end of the story. Just what is going on? Stephenson refuses to make it clear, rather leaving things on a delicious note of uncertainty.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who shares his mother's home. He has recently returned with only a small bag of possessions. He has no job. Perhaps he ought to find one. Has he been abroad? In prison? Travelling? We don't know, though there is a sense of some significant past event, something to be regretted.
Rather than explaining this, the narrator spends a lot of time telling us about his observations of animal life in the house and garden: welcome - bees, spiders - and unwelcome - rats, which he attempts to eradicate. (The squeamish may not care for this part.) It's almost as though the close observation of the other creatures that share the space is an effort to avoid something - or, just possibly, the opposite, a way of conveying some truth without being able to state it plainly.
In a few pages, the story covers lots of ground, beginning by evoking the normality of family life, with shrewd nods to the ways things work over time, the tray of tea things that stays in its place for decades, the items nobody ever thinks to replace, the sense of familiarity with all the little noises of the house (water pipes, floorboards). Then is begins to inject notes of doubt. Those noises are so familiar that variations immediately stand out: scurrying in the attic or a poorly functioning boiler provoke dis-ease. The familiar may still be, or point to, the weird.
All this, blended together, gradually loosens the reader's sense of what is real, what is being dreamed and what might simply be an untrue, so there's a sense the story may go anywhere... as indeed it does.
A deeply unsettling, yet fascinating story.
Tufnell's eerie little story explores this disquiet, though he stays away from modern tech (I think the story is set pre Internet, with the analogue camera still in everyday use) and the weirdness induced by a mirror - which allows for a fine description of the time-worn, spotted artefact and also an investigation of its history and origins.
Tension builds as this history unfolds and as the true nature of the narrator's situation becomes clear. Eventually he takes drastic action to resolve things, but - in a twist of cosmic horror - I suspected that what he did "won't hold up the weather".