Book Review: the Fallow Sisters novels

Liz Williams, the author of these books, is a friend but we’re also capable of critiquing/reviewing each other’s work objectively, and have often done so at Milford SF Writer’s Workshop.

I first read at early version of the opening chapters of Comet Weather, the first of the four Fallow Sisters novels, at Milford some years ago. I remember thinking it was pleasant and engaging but I wasn’t sure where it was going. When Comet Weather was published I bought the book to see where it had gone, and I bloody loved it.

My core love is SF (which Liz Williams also writes) and I don’t read much fiction set in the here and now (occasional escapist detective novels excepted). However, it turns out I am (to use the Milford phrase) the ‘target audience’ for a contemporary occult mystery with elements of gentle wit and folk horror.

These books strike an interesting balance. The four sisters of the series’ title are living somewhat alternative but superficially mundane lives in and around the West Country (where I also live, so I chimed with the quirky humour). Their household is unusual enough, and the characters relatable and interesting enough, that the small domestic complications and occasional lifestyle swerves are of interest in themselves.

But beyond the minor domestic dramas is an unseen occult world the sisters were always open to but had only touched in a limited fashion at the start of book 1. Their contact with this other reality grows, and they become enmeshed in occult goings on, giving the author the chance to employ her considerable knowledge of British folklore. One of my favourite scenes is an outdoor performance of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, at Midsummer, which the actual Wild Hunt ride through – an event most of the audience remain oblivious of, but which those attuned to the hidden world have to cope with, ideally without causing too much fuss.

One of the joys of these stories is that, all through the weirdness, the sisters remain grounded. This isn’t to say they have an easy time of it, or always get things right, but despite inhabiting a liminal version of our world where almost anything can happen, everyone retains a pleasingly pragmatic view of the proceedings. If they need to go get some supplies for ritual magic from a supplier in Glastonbury, they may as well use the Tesco car park and pick up some milk while they’re there.

This ability to inhabit both worlds means that that when they face real, soul-destroying horror, we really feel it with them. But we’re also confident that this extraordinary family is quite up to dealing with it.

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