Seven Wild Sisters is, technically, a sequel to The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (read Stephie’s review) but stands alone: Lillian of Cats is now an adult, neighbour and mentor to one of the titular seven sisters in the second book. If you’ve read other stories by Charles de Lint, you know that he loves to weave characters from one story into the stories of other characters, so it’s not a huge surprise that Lillian of Seven Wild Sisters is the Lillian of The Cats of Tanglewood Forest and also Lily of the short story “Somewhere in my mind there is a painting box” in Muse and Reverie. Seven Wild Sisters is not – only – about Lillian. But it is her voice that starts off the story.
Seven Wild Sisters is about the Dillard sisters: Adie (eldest and rebel); Laurel and Bess (twins and musical); Sarah Jane (the protagonist, inasmuch as the story has one); Elsie (the quietest, the scientist, most often out of doors); Ruth and Grace (twins and fond of pranks).
Sarah Jane unofficially apprentices to ‘Aunt Lillian,’ which is where the trouble begins: harvesting ‘sang (ginseng) alone for the first time, Sarah Jane finds and rescues a ‘sangman who is perforated with poisoned arrows. Good deeds deserve a reward, one might think; but Sarah Jane’s actions place her and everyone close to her in the middle of a faerie war. The ‘sangmen (and ‘sangwomen?) and the bee faeries do not get along.
It was kind of funny, if you think about it. For three years I’d been desperate to see one of the fairy people from those stories Aunt Lillian was always telling me. But now that I had, I couldn’t wait to get back to her house and be done with it. (p. 59)
Each side decides to gain control of Sarah Jane (and the ‘sangman) by kidnapping her sisters. Here’s an excerpt from the scene in which the bee faeries kidnap Adie and Elsie. The description begins with luxurious language which highlights the magnificence of the troop that rides toward the two sisters, and then turns:
Neither the riders nor their animals seemed quite right. They were all too tall, too lean, their features too sharp. A nimbus of shining golden light hung about them, unearthly and bright. The whole company – men and women, their mounts and all – were so handsome it was hard to look at them and not feel diminished. Adie and Elsie felt like poor country cousins invited to a palatial ballroom, standing awkwardly in the doorway, not wanting to come in.
“This can’t be real,” Adie said. (p. 110-111)
‘Not quite right,’ a description repeated later in the story when Ruth and Grace are stolen by another group of bee faeries, hits the mark. Things are amiss in the fae realm.
“Did your mother lock you in a tower for most of your life?” she asked. “Did she never have a kind word for you?” (p. 230)
The human-fae relations are delicately intertwined, enduring, and multi-generational. That and the countryside feel to the story were a strength. The enduring themes of home and belonging and family and finding your place were woven in and out of the narrative and touched upon for multiple characters.
On the downside, the sisters felt slightly passive, the fae not fully sketched out, and the ending (particularly the very end) felt pat, almost fated. The narrative tendency to tell rather than show undercut the sisterly dynamics. This is not where I would start if I was introducing someone to Charles de Lint’s world(s).
However, if you’re looking for a gentle middle grade introduction to faerie tales and multi-generational family stories, here’s one for you.