‘Sistersong’ is the story of three siblings – Keyne, Riva, and Sinne – born to the King of Dumnonia in the early 5th century AD. It’s a very classic historical fantasy, creating a wonderful sense of time and place whilst also spinning an engaging tale of magic and identity. It starts slowly, but the second half is a fast-moving adventure that’s difficult to put down.
Dumnonia in 535 AD was an area of South-West Britain covering most of modern Devon and parts of Cornwall and Somerset. The Kingdom was created by the departure of the Romans – but they left a fragmented and divided land. In ‘Sistersong’, King Cador of Dumnonia has turned away from his peoples traditional gods and magics and instead towards Roman Christianity, weakening their natural defences. The result is famine, and growing terror at the threat of the Wessex Saxons on their borders. Amidst this uncertainty, Keyne tries to navigate a world in which he is persistently forced to be a woman, rather than the man he knows he is. Riva, badly burnt and disfigured in a terrible fire, worries that she will never heal. And Sinne, the youngest daughter, yearns for a romantic tale of adventure and love, willing to sacrifice anything for her own desires. As new faces and old friends gather at the Dumnonian stronghold, the siblings clash, grappling with their warring desires – and with the Dumnonian magic, their bloodline and birthright, perhaps the only way they can save their people from Saxon rule.
Keyne is by far the strongest character in the book. His struggles with his identity are powerful to read about, and he’s a determined, feisty character, always fighting against perceived injustice and mistakes. His actions can be selfish, but his intentions are always good, and he deeply cares about his land and his people. His relationship with Myrddhin, his mentor, is absolutely fantastic, and later on he has the sweetest friendship-to-romance arc – lovely to read about, especially for a transgender character in historical fiction.
Riva’s journey also starts strongly. Her place in society, as a woman and the daughter of the king, has always been to marry well and carry children – but thanks to being badly burnt by wildfire, she no longer believes herself desirable enough to do her duty. She’s also a healer, saving many of her people from death – yet she cannot heal herself. Her grapples with identity, whilst very different to Keyne’s, are equally moving. However, her story becomes very predictable, and she has the weakest ending of any of the siblings tales.
Sinne starts off an incredibly difficult character to like. She’s selfish, caring only about herself and her own desirability, and she toys with others and their emotions. She’s mean and catty to her siblings, especially Keyne, and tries to spin every situation to see how she could get more social power from it. However, as the story goes on, she grows greatly. Like her siblings, Sinne possesses powerful magic – but hers is fickle and hard to control, and she starts to grapple with how much she actually knows herself, and how much is her magic leading her astray. She’s also one of the first to accept Keyne as he is, and she develops a beautiful and powerful friendship with a man called Os, a mysterious mute who most people hate or fear for his outsider status. Sinne is a woman covered in thorns, but beneath them there’s a good heart buried deep.
The plot is uncomplicated – there are a few surprises, but the overall arcs and biggest twists are relatively predictable. However, the exploration of a period of British history less commonly seen in historical fiction is fascinating, and the different pagan magics are beautifully explored. The difficult relationship between the spreading influence of the Roman Catholic church and the traditional worship of gods and the land is also well-written, with some great fantasy twists thrown in.
The ending is clear folktale and will likely be divisive – while the rest of the novel can be read as solid historical fiction with some fantasy elements, there are twists at the end which are pure fantasy. It’s slightly jarring, given the relative realism of everything else, but overall works well. The epilogue, with its ambiguous nature, is a poignant way to end, adding an element of mystery to an otherwise neatly concluded story.
Overall, Sistersong is a strong historical fantasy novel inspired by ancient British folk tales, with its strengths lying in the exploration of identity and pagan magic. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, folklore, and complex family relationships.
Thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: 1st April 2021