Book Review: Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen

Somehow, I’ve never gotten around to reading much by Jane Yolen, so I was excited to see this title pop up on NetGalley prior to its rerelease (with new and striking cover art) as an ebook. Sadly, it was just okay. First published in 1988, Sister Light, Sister Dark has aged fairly well, all things considered, but like many feminist fantasy works of the ‘80s, it tends towards second-wave gender essentialism and a sort of pseudo-pagan sensibility. There’s nothing particularly offensive or terribly problematic about it, really, but it’s a subgenre that has just been done to death and has a definite sameness to similar work that will almost certainly make it feel dated and derivative to modern readers. It’s also a book that has some definite love-it-or-hate-it qualities.

The most obviously polarizing aspect of the book happens to also be pretty much its central conceit. It’s not just a straightforward story. Instead, it’s told in a mix of ways—with section headings like History, Myth, Legend, and Parable—so that it’s almost an epistolary novel. I loved this, myself, and thought that it worked well to provide multiple avenues for involving the main story’s themes as well as adding a meta dimension through which to explore bigger ideas about history, storytelling and mythmaking. There are times where parts of the story are repeated, however, and moments where the musings and speculations of the imagined historians are tiresome. If you enjoy the conceit and “get it” it’s nicely done, but if you prefer to just read the main narrative with no interruptions you might resent the breaks in the tale and the shifting perspectives on the story.

Though I in general like the multimedia-ish formatting of the story, I could have done without the Song parts. For some reason, lots of fantasy authors fancy themselves poets as well, and the truth is that they mostly ought to just stay in their lane. I know that poetry is a common feature of fantasy of this book’s age, but it’s just never very good and the poetry here is no different. It’s sophomoric at best and distracts from rather than adds to the story.

Perhaps one of the biggest draws for feminist readers may be that this is a novel that is full of female characters. It’s even touted in the marketing copy that it’s a world with no men, though this isn’t strictly true. There are plenty of men; it’s just the rather narrow world of the main protagonists that is made up of villages of matriarchal, mother-worshipping women. Unfortunately, Jane Yolen doesn’t actually have all that much to really say about gender. Her women-only towns have a more or less utopian maiden-mother-crone hierarchy that isn’t very compelling, and the patriarchal cities and armies that they encounter are, frankly, just too expected to be at all interesting.

Even the individual characters are just alright. Jenna is a pretty archetypal Chosen One, which means that her backstory is the most interesting thing about her. Though the book is largely about looking at what it means for a girl to grow up with the weight of her community’s expectations, fears and doubts on her, the examination of these themes through Jenna’s character is ultimately shallow. By the end of the book, Jenna seems to have conformed to or lived up to the prophecy that she’s supposed to be the fulfillment of, but the story as told in this book stops short of her actually doing anything very momentous.

Jenna’s relationships with others are as one-dimensional as she is. She has no mother, being thrice-orphaned, and her relationships with mother figures aren’t very important. Her friendship with Pynt is a significant part of the story, but both girls are immature and selfish to start with and the relationship is easily dumped towards the end of the story in favor of the suggestion of Jenna having a romance and a grand destiny in the future instead—not to mention that Pynt is essentially replaced when Jenna calls forth her dark sister, Skada. Her antagonistic relationship with the head priestess of her village has potential, but the priestess is more a caricature of petty small-mindedness than anything else.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book for me, however, is this whole dark sister concept. I want to love the idea, but it just didn’t work for me, mostly because it’s talked up through the whole book but when Jenna actually gets her sister nothing much happens. Instead, Skada is just sort of there, without anything of importance to do. I fully expected the dark sister thing to be a way of exploring the characters’ dual natures or of personifying the idea that people are often of two minds about things, but that’s not the case. It ends up just being a piece of window dressing that is never utilized to its full potential, which is a shame.

All the same, I think I would have loved this if I’d found it twenty years ago. Today, though, it just doesn’t hold up that well, even if the new cover art is gorgeous.

This review was based upon a free copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

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