Published: December 3, 2019 (US)
Fall under the spell of this contemporary fairy tale that’s perfect for fans of Emily Winfield Martin’s Snow & Rose and the Chronicles of Narnia series.
Alice thought it was unusual to see a dragonfly in the middle of winter. But she followed it until she fell down-down-down, and woke up in a world unlike any other.
Welcome to Sisterland, a fantastical world where it is always summer. The most enchanting magic of all, though, is Alice’s new friend Marissa. But as the girls explore the strange land, they learn Sisterland’s endless summer comes at a price. Back on Earth, their homes are freezing over. To save their families, Alice and Marissa must outwit the powerful Queen Lili. But the deeper they go into Sisterland, the less Alice and Marissa remember about their homes, their lives before, and what they are fighting for.
This is a wondrous tale about heroism, loyalty, and friendship from one of the most celebrated Finnish children’s authors, Salla Simukka.
I was excited to read Sisterland because I encounter so few novels in the US book market that have been translated from another language, and I’m always interested to see what’s going on in the international literary landscape. Unfortunately, although the book promised to be a good read for fans of middle grade fantasy like the Chronicles of Narnia and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I found both the plot and the characters to be too underdeveloped for me to enjoy the book.
I will disclose that comparisons to Narnia tend to rub me the wrong way because far, far too often the similarities to Lewis’s work are too overt for my tastes, more lifting than inspiration. In Sisterland, we have a locked magic garden (somewhat like in The Magician’s Nephew) and then a world ruled by an evil ice queen (like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) with the difference that in this world it’s always summer and never winter. There’s also the matter that when humans return to their world, no time has passed. Next, there are also clear borrowings from Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, such as the characters’ following a mysterious magical animal and then falling a long way down a hole in order to enter the magic world. Some people may like these “nods” to other, more famous works; personally I prefer more subtlety.
Mostly, however, I was not a fan of the pacing of the plot. Sisterland is one of those novels where everything happens quickly with no development. The protagonist meets a new character? Instantly she just trusts him and they are the best of friends, even though neither she nor the reader knows a single thing about him, his history, or his personality. The protagonist encounters a riddle? It’s solved on the next page. She needs to complete part of a quest? Done in four pages. A minor hiccup might interrupt her success for, oh, two paragraphs or so, and then she surmounts it and plows on to the next quest.
To be fair, this might not have bothered me if I were ten years old and reading this book. At that age, I didn’t look for a lot of development within the novel and would often fill in details myself. I’ve been surprised to reread books as an adult that I loved as a child only realize they’re very sparse; few things happen or are really elaborated on, but I never noticed when I first read the book. As an adult reader, however, this is a major flaw for me and one of the lines I think that distinguish middle grade books that will appeal mostly to children and ones that can find a wider audience and transcend ages.
The characterization has the same problem. People become friends or enemies or have big emotions that just…aren’t really explained. This is a book about a friendship so deep that two girls can feel like sisters, and yet I felt nothing about or for the girls. For all I could tell, they became friends partially because they were the only two girls around and both were generically nice.
So, I wanted to like this. A translated middle grade fantasy about friendship and cool magical places with dragons, amusement parks, an ever-changing garden, and more should have been right up my alley, but mostly I thought the book skipped along too fast and very few things made sense. This is definitely the most disappointing book I’ve read so far in 2020, though I do still think very young readers might like it more than I did.