We’re delighted to reveal the cover of Lucy Holland’s Sistersong, as well as a glimpse at the first chapter of the novel. We also spoke with the author about one of the inspirations behind the book: the ballad ‘The Two Sisters’…
But first, here is a synopsis…
535 AD. In the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, King Cador’s children inherit a fragmented land abandoned by the Romans.
Riva, scarred in a terrible fire, fears she will never heal.
Keyne battles to be seen as the king’s son, when born a daughter.
And Sinne, the spoiled youngest girl, yearns for romance.
All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold – a last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. But change comes on the day ash falls from the sky, bringing Myrddhin, meddler and magician, and Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear the siblings apart. Riva, Keyne and Sinne must take fate into their own hands, or risk being tangled in a story they could never have imagined; one of treachery, love and ultimately, murder. It’s a story that will shape the destiny of Britain.
Sistersong retells the folk ballad, ‘The Two Sisters’, through the eyes of one the tale forgot. It’s a powerfully moving story, perfect for fans of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Katherine Arden’s The Bear And The Nightingale.
“Sistersong was inspired by a murder ballad called The Two Sisters, an eerie tale of how a young woman drowns her sister out of jealousy and that sister is transformed after death into a harp,” Holland tells us. “The ghastly bone instrument needs no fingers to pluck it; it reveals the truth to all and justice swiftly follows.
“When I first heard the ballad, I was immediately struck by how little it tells. Sexual jealousy and sibling rivalry are both perilous things, but sororicide? I sensed multiple sides to the story and there is nothing more enticing to a writer. What if the crime was provoked? What if it was an accident? Could it be a combination of both – the result of a dark secret inextricably bound up in events that threatened the sisters’ very homeland?
“The story is always much larger than we think. And there are always more players in the shadows. In some versions of the ballad, there are three “daughters” but nothing is said of the middle sibling. I drew out this story by thinking about erasure and why certain people’s lives are forgotten – deliberately or otherwise. Putting Keyne, who you will meet in the extract, centre stage between his sisters, restores his story to him while allowing him to tell us about them too – of the deep love between siblings, of the magical heritage all three discover. And yes: of the misunderstandings and the jealousy. Because war is not the only thing that can tear a family apart.”
Not excited enough about Sistersong?! Ah okay, here’s a sneak peek of the first chapter of the book…
I will tell you a story.
Seven years ago, when I was a child of ten, I became lost in the woods. My sisters and I had been travelling the road that skims the coast like a stone from Dintagel. I loved our summer home – a spume-silvered rock of houses and workshops, its docks piled high with amphorae. But there is a place, many leagues to the east, where the road slows, turning inland. It loses itself amongst the trees, straying into giant country. Branches interlace here; it is easy to slip away into the green space between a giant’s fingers. Easy for a careless child to disappear.
Looking back, I wonder whether it truly was carelessness. Perhaps it was her doing. Given everything which came after, that would make sense.
Between one scout’s holler and the next, I am lost, a prisoner of the wood. I feel no fear, more an irritation that I’ve let the trees trick me. I can hear my father, the king, calling me and the irreverent footfalls of men rending foliage. It will be the last time he expresses concern for me. Real parental concern, as opposed to the kind shown for a child who is growing swiftly into a disappointment.
I wander so long, it feels as though I’ve crossed some hidden boundary. I’ve left our world for theirs – the nameless land where goddesses wear forest skin and sing to the stars, where lost spirits linger in the twilight. I don’t recognise these leaves. I think they are yew quills, the terrible grave-trees which grow out of death. I shiver, as irritation turns to fear. Deep voices seem to call my name, anthems to lost children. And now I am lost, hopelessly so.
The sky darkens and with the light goes hope. Hunger claws at my stomach; I am old enough to know I cannot survive long without food and water. Tears well. What if I die here and the yew grows stronger, roots curling through my bones? But despair is a sharp scent and I suppose she smells it upon the air, for suddenly a woman stands before me.
She is old, but not so old as Locinna, our nurse. Eyes peer beneath a heavy brow, blue, and piercing as a gull’s. She wears rags, tattered and rent, but after a blink, these become a cloak of moths, their wings a-flit in the evening. Another blink and it’s just an ordinary cloak, albeit a strange one made of patches and ribbons fluttering free.
She extends a hand and I realise I’ve been sitting on the leaf mulch, the seat of my skirt damp through. My legs wobble as I stand. Her fingers are rough, calloused like a smith’s. I wonder what arcane trade might have scarred them.
‘Are you a witch?’ The dangerous question is out in the open before I can stop it.
She smiles. ‘Perhaps.’ Looks me up and down. ‘Would you like me to be?’
‘And why not?’
‘Because witches are to be feared.’
She pauses. ‘A good answer, if not entirely true.’
‘I want to go home.’
The witch tilts her head, her gull’s eyes narrowing on my face as if it were a fine fat fish. ‘I wonder if you do.’
‘Of course I do.’ But I glimpse her meaning. I have never felt truly at ease in my home.
‘You are wet through. Come and get warm.’
They are such inviting words. And I’m freezing, it’s true. But she’s a witch. ‘My father must be worried.’
She steps back and something jingles – her stick-wrists gleam with silver bracelets. I stare. Only Mother has jewellery like that. Where hers is solid and silent, however, the witch’s bracelets sing. I feel a desperate urge to touch them, to capture those chimes between my palms, as if I could take the melody inside me.
She notices my gaze, smiles again. ‘Would you like one?’
Throat dry with want, I shake my head.
‘Here.’ She slides off a single band, passing it over gnarled brown knuckles. And before I know it, my fingers have closed about its shining curve.
‘I can’t –’
‘But you already have.’
My cheeks flush. The C-shaped band is too big, hanging on my wrist like the crescent moon above us. But it shrinks to a perfect size even as I watch, and I can hardly breathe for the magic. When I look up, she’s half-turned her back. ‘Wear it when you are ready to find me again.’ And she is gone, returned to the forest that birthed her.
The forest I am no longer within, for I now stand upon a wide road, and voices – human voices – are shouting my name. One laughing, one crying, my sisters rush towards me.
Sistersong by Lucy Holland will be published by Macmillan on 15 April 2021. Pre-order your copy here.