Graham Joyce,
Dark Sister
(Tor, 1999)

Graham Joyce is a writer whose books belong on the shelf next to those by Charles de Lint, Terri Windling, Jane Yolen, and the like -- actually, they belong off the shelf and in your hands. Yes, he's that good.

Dark Sister, Joyce's newest novel, is a gripping dark fantasy with strong psychological overtones. When Alex and Maggie decide to open up the fireplace in their old house, they make two discoveries -- one unpleasant. First, they find a mummified blackbird which is duly buried in the garden at the request of 5-year-old Amy. Next, the chimney sweep discovers an ancient diary hidden in the chimney.

At first, the diary looks like a compilation of herbal cures, and Maggie, somewhat stifled and bored, tries one out to cure 3-year-old Sam's conjunctivitis. In search of eyebright, an essential ingredient, she meets and befriends Ash, the proprietor of an herbal emporium. In turn, Ash directs Maggie to meet Old Liz, a practicing witch.

Sam's eye clears up, but the eyebright also gives him the ability to see the unseen, and that includes an old woman riding a rat.

More writing is revealed in the diary as a special ink responds to heat and brings more writing to light, and Maggie delves into magical practices. The diarist, a woman named Bella, records the influence of a mysterious A., a "dark sister" who drives her. This dark sister also drives Maggie further from her family until she goes almost too far to come back. At the same time, a grisly find at the archaeological dig that Alex is overseeing begins to tie it all together.

The story is tightly woven and gripping, propelling the reader from page to page. Dark Sister is populated with complex and well-rounded characters. Joyce manages to paint a vivid portrait in a few words. One sees the characters defined clearly, yet at the same time, they reveal new depths as the narrative progresses.

This is a novel about the disintegration and renewal of human relationships as much as it is about involvement with herblore and witchcraft, and it is fascinating to see how Joyce weaves the two together. Dark Sister is the first Graham Joyce novel I've read, but it certainly won't be the last.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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