"Course there's spirits in the hills. How could there not be?" muses Aunt Lillian, the backwoods wise woman whose interaction with bee fairies and 'sangmen (tiny ginseng root fairies) sets up the connection the wild red-haired sisters have to the magical Otherworld in this appealing contemporary fairy tale from Canadian de Lint (Moonlight and Vines). It is a wild connection, indeed, because "it's dangerous for humans to be with fairies. It wakes things in you that can't be satisfied, leaving you with a hunger that lasts until the end of your days." These cautionary words come from old Aunt Lillian's true love, the Apple Tree Man, after young Sarah Jane Dillard rescues an injured 'sangman and unwittingly becomes involved in a romantic 'sangman vs. bee fairy conflict, which originated when a bee fairy princess fell in love and ran off with the wounded 'sangman. The middle child of a collection of engaging and sometimes downright incorrigible sisters, Sarah Jane, along with Adie, Laurel and Bess (musical twins), Elsie, Ruth and Grace (the youngest twins), are all drawn into this Otherworldly feud that can be resolved only after much delightful malingering by storyteller de Lint. This long-awaited collaboration between de Lint and noted illustrator Charles Vess, World Fantasy Award-winning artist and past collaborator with Neil Gaiman and Jeff Smith, weaves a gentle and at times humorous enchantment, suitable for fantasy fans of all ages.
In his latest novel, de Lint leaves his familiar setting of Newford, Ontario, behind and heads for the hills in a mystical fairy tale written with a naturalist's passion. Everything changes for teenager Sarah Jane Dillard, the fourth in a family of seven daughters, when she befriends her neighbor, the reclusive Aunt Lillian, who lives on a remote, forested homestead. Here, Sarah Jane learns about plants and herbs, but most enticing are Lillian's wild stories of the forest's spirit world—a world that Sarah Jane plunges into after an encounter with a forest fairy. Sarah Jane and her sisters are all drawn into the bizarre politics and battles of the Other Side before everyone emerges with a fairy tale's typical happy ending. Magic and herbalist lore mix with contemporary details (cell phones, the Discovery Channel, and even a passing reference to a Go-Go's song), romance, and an appealing backcountry, yarn-spinning voice. Suspenseful, unique, and unexpected fantasy for de Lint fans and newcomers alike.
Rambes.net, Feb. 02:
Charles de Lint's new short novel Seven Wild Sisters had its genesis at Wiscon in May 2000, when de Lint and artist Charles Vess began their collaboration. The result is a thoroughly enchanting modern fairy tale.
At first, it's curiosity that brings 13-year-old Sarah Jane Dillard up the path to Aunt Lillian's house; rumor has it that the old woman who lives alone there is a witch. She learns quickly enough that Aunt Lillian is no such thing, and in the ensuing years, Sarah Jane enjoys helping Aunt Lillian eke out a living from the land and listening to the older woman's wealth of stories. By the time she's 16, Sarah Jane has a dream that rivals the musical aspirations of her older twin sisters Laurel and Bess. She wants to live with Aunt Lillian and share her rustic life.
When Sarah Jane goes off on her first solo trip to gather 'sang (ginseng), she stumbles across a strange little creature, a man who seems to be made of roots and sticks and leaves. He is injured, stuck full of tiny arrows, and Sarah pulls out the arrows and takes him home to Aunt Lillian. What she doesn't realize is that she has stepped right in the middle of a longstanding feud between the 'sangmen and the bee fairies. What's more, she inadvertently drags her six sisters into it as well, but the Dillard sisters are feisty, determined and devoted to each other, and they're not about to give up without a fight.
De Lint uses multiple points of view to round out his characters and add dimension to the story. Aunt Lillian starts off, setting the scene with the rivalry that exists between 'sang and bees, as well as the magical creatures which inhabit the hills. The Father of Cats, the Green Boy, the Apple Tree Man and others roam between this world and an otherworld, interacting with humans or just watching—and sometimes watching over them. Her character comes alive with careful use of cadence in her narrative. Sarah Jane also tells part of the story, and de Lint captures perfectly the uncertainty of an adolescent girl sensitive to her need to find her place in the world.
The point of view also shifts effectively among the sisters: headstrong and stubborn eldest Adie gets paired up with the quiet and introspective Elsie, and their characteristics complement each other well. Mischief-makers Grace and Ruth, youngest sisters and twins as well, serve as catalysts for the story, when a prank played on the musical twins Laurel and Bess results in capture for both sets of twins. Overall, all the sisters play off each other to good effect, and their love for each other is powerful magic indeed.
Seven Wild Sisters is the kind of book that makes you sigh happily when you finish, partly sad because it's over but mostly happy, content and full with the magic wrought by a truly fine story while knowing that all you have to do is open the book to the beginning. De Lint's narrative is skillful and polished, and, like good poetry, tight and spare without sacrificing evocative imagery.
Apart from a preliminary sketch serving as frontispiece, Vess's work is unavailable for preview, but if the sketch is any indication, the artwork will enhance the story beautifully. Seven Wild Sisters is a gem of a novel and one you will reach for again and again.
Green Man Review:
Seven Wild Sisters advertises itself as a modern fairy tale. Including the seven sisters, it certainly has all the trappings: an old woman who may be a witch, an enchanted forest, a stolen princess. But Sisters is not just borrowing the clothes of fairy tale. It sings with the true voice of fairy tale: capricious, wild, and not entirely safe, but rich and enchanting.
Seven sisters—Adie, Laurel, Bess, Sarah Jane, Elsie, Ruth and Grace—get caught between two warring groups of fairies because of an act of kindness. With the help of some of the forest's residents and one human they set out to free themselves from the trouble they're in. Those familiar with fairy lore will recognize the rules the girls are forced to play by. The strength of promises, the power of ritual, the lore of magic numbers, are portrayed as the innate part of fairy behavior the old stories always assumed them to be. The fairies bound by these rules are properly alien, unpredictable and often dangerous. Neither the too-perfect gods of modern fantasy nor the pretty dolls of Victoriana, they defy classification, and that, of course, is what they should do.
The language of the tale, moving seamlessly between first and third person narrative, adds to its authenticity. Nothing scintillates or coruscates. Nobody spends much time thinking about their inner self or the true nature of reality. There are no fancy or false notes here, just a straightforward this-happened-that-happened presentation of the facts. This simple conversational tone, which presents a fairy attack in the same tone as a schoolgirl prank, makes the magic of the story both inescapable and acceptable.
Odd as it sounds, one of the best aspects of Seven Wild Sisters is its brevity. The real adventure in the story takes place over a couple of days, and de Lint's compact storytelling makes it actually feel like a couple of days. The tight pacing keeps the suspense high without any forced cliffhangers. The quickness of the tale also lets the story just happen on it own, without making room for any awkward explanations of the fairy world. Exactly as much justification is given the girls' adventure as most of us get for the plot of our lives, which is very little indeed. The determined lack of mythos creates the anytime, anywhere nature of the tale and firmly plants it in fairy and folktale territory.
Seven Wild Sisters has a a full-color dustjacket as well as full-page interior illustrations and page decorations by Charles Vess, who also did the page decorations and cover art for The Green Man anthology. Charles de Lint says that he and Charles Vess have been wanting to do this for years. That's understandable, given how cool the final product is!
Seven Wild Sisters is a slim, just over a hundred pages long, novella that I read on a very warm summer's evening. And the art by Charles Vess certainly enhances the pleasure of reading what is already a great tale. He starts off with full-color cover art: a picture of one sister apparently flying under a freize of all of them dancing, which creates a mood of young women bursting with vim and vigor. This motif's repeated on the inside cover—but before you look there, take off the dust jacket and look at the small fey fiddler on the book itself. Wonderful! The interior black-and-white drawings have to be seen to be fully appreciated—my favorite ones are the fey cat just after the contents page, the tree-being with a mug in his gnarly hands inside the cabin (page forty-nine), and two of the sisters watching the fey fiddler (page seventy-six). Oddly enough, this tale by a Canadian writer feels more real to me as a tale of the Appalachian Mountains than the Ballad novels written by Sharyn McCrumb, a writer born and raised there, do. I suspect that there will be more collaborations set in these Mountains between these two gentlemen!