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The Sisters Grimm by Menna Van Praag
Words by Charlotte Griffiths
The Sisters Grimm is the latest novel and first in a new fantasy trilogy from Cambridge-based author Menna van Praag, which tells the tale of four sisters, their fates laid out before you even open the book in bold text on the beautifully-gilded cover: “Three will live. One will die.”
Billed as a feminist fairytale for the modern age, this hugely imaginative and vast-in-scope story follows a quartet of women on the edge of 18 – Goldie, Bea, Liyana and Scarlet. They are half-sisters, all born on the same day to different mothers and who all possess forgotten magical abilities. As they struggle with the realities of regular day-to-day life – ageing relatives, minimum-wage work, parenthood, sexuality – they must also come to terms with their own identities, rediscover their inner abilities and ultimately do battle against their golden-eyed father, Wilhelm Grimm, who wants his powerful daughters to join him on the dark side and inflict devastation on the world.
The book opens 33 days before an as-yet-unspecified event, and we’re introduced to the four women in quick succession: Goldie is trying to make ends meet and fending off the unwanted advances of a co-worker; philosophy student Bea is relishing the experience of flying a glider across the Fens; Liyana is in her literal and figurative element, swimming in a hotel’s luxurious pool while dreaming of her girlfriend, and Scarlet is taking part in a blacksmith’s experience day. Their individual tragedies and backstories unfold swiftly in short, bite-sized chapters, racing between the sisters’ different perspectives and two timelines in increasingly popular present tense. In Goldie’s chapters, her story is told in first person present, which further heightens the sense of intimacy and immediacy that’s signposted by the constant presence of the countdown.
Early in the book Goldie meets the enigmatic Leo, a gifted student at Cambridge’s St John’s College – whose parallel identity is that of a lumen latros, an otherworldly Star Soldier who needs to vanquish the Grimm sisters in order to survive. Goldie soon develops a crush on this handsome young man, but Leo knows Goldie’s true identity as a Grimm even before she does: it turns out there are not just four Grimm sisters, and the Grimms and Star Soldiers have been at war for generations. It’s Leo’s task to make sure that this set of sisters don’t realise their powers.
As with the majority of Menna’s other works, most of this book is set in Cambridge, which is an added treat for local readers: the fictional Fitzwilliam Hotel is the setting for the early sections of Goldie’s tale, and is inspired by the Hotel du Vin on Trumpington Street – the real hotel’s library is where a large proportion of the book was written. Other locations familiar to Cambridge residents make regular appearances: the first meeting of the four sisters occurs in Fitzbillies, while a thinly-disgused Agora At The Copper Kettle appears as No.33 Cafe, owned by Scarlet’s grandmother.
“The whispers that speak of unknown things, the signs that point in unseen directions”
The other key location is Everwhere, a fantasy land accessible only via the Grimms’ dreams and ancient gates – an architectural feature that Cambridge is rich in, thanks to its many colleges and historical buildings – and to which the sisters must return if they’re to fully realise their powers before the battle to come on their 18th birthdays. The theme of unleashing one’s concealed power runs through the marrow of this book: in the prologue the narrator speaks of their hope that by the time the reader finishes this tale, they’ll “start listening to the whispers that speak of unknown things, the signs that point in unseen directions and the nudges that suggest unimagined possibilities” – and discover their own inner magnificence.
This is Menna’s first official foray into fantasy: her previous books, including her debut The House at the End of Hope Street and The Dress Shop of Dreams among others, contain elements of magical realism and are warmly loved by her many fans worldwide, selling 150,000 copies across the globe. This new book is also dedicated to anyone who is ever awake at 3:33am, and the nocturnal leanings extend to the author herself, who admits in a Facebook post that she wrote much of The Sisters Grimm during the night – crafting sentences after dark, she says, “gave a more enchanting and ethereal quality to the words…”. Menna’s writing is incredibly visual, and the UK edition of the book also features four specially commissioned illustrations by fellow Cambridge resident Alastair Meikle.
The Sisters Grimm is one for fans of Menna’s distinctive and fast-paced writing style, and will also be popular with all those readers who are fans of fantasy tales and young adult fiction. Knowing there are two more books to come will no doubt delight readers keen to spend more time in the world of the Everwhere with the three remaining characters as they strike out to seek their sisters throughout the world – after all, now they’ve realised they are who they truly are, nothing can stand in their way…