Charles de Lint,
Seven Wild Sisters
(Subterranean Press, 2002)

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.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 23 February 2002

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