Seven Wild Sisters, a collaboration between Charles de Lint and Charles Vess, holds no surprises, and that’s a very good thing. The companion-cum-sequel to their earlier collaboration The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, the book delivers exactly what it promises: Gorgeous illustration and an encounter with the otherworld that’s ultimately more about wonder than it is about peril.
The story is classic de Lint: When Sarah Jane’s mother moves her and her six feisty sisters out into the sticks, she finds herself entering the orbit of local wise woman Aunt Lillian. Lillian’s got some knowledge of the local fair folk, including the ongoing war between the fairies of the ginseng and the fairies of the bees, but all her warnings are for naught when Sarah Jane finds a tiny man pierced through with arrows. He is, of course, a ginseng (“‘Sangman”, in the book’s parlance) fairy, ambushed and struck down by the bee fairies, and when Sarah Jane saves him, she puts herself and her sisters – who end up getting kidnapped by various factions in order to be used as leverage one way or the other. Only the girls’ courage and determination, along with the help of a couple of fairy folk of Aunt Lillian’s acquaintance, allows them to reach what can best be described as a storybook happy ending.
Charles de Lint’s prose is its usual excellent self here. All the hallmarks, from a quick shout-out to Newford to the mandatory musician characters, are here, along with the warnings about the allure of the otherworld and the unshakeable faith in the goodwill of strangers. Each of the sisters is sketched in such a way as to make them stand out when it would have been very easy for them to blur into indistinguishability, given the book’s relatively short length. Similarly, the Fair Folk – the rustic but good-hearted Apple Tree Man, the junior version of the King of Cats, and the imperious queen of the bee fairies – all make strong impressions even with limited time on-stage. This is, after all, the sisters’ novel, and the focus rightfully stays on them. The Apple Tree Man’s knowledge might inspire the plan that saves them, but it’s up to Sarah Jane and her sisters to carry it out, even in the face of dreadful danger and temptation.
What really takes the book to the next level as a singular artifact, however, is Vess’ illustrations. Ranging from small character studies that serve essentially as drop caps to gorgeous full page pieces, they resonate perfectly with the text. Vess deploys his usual palate of blues and greens, broken up with singular elements of bright red, which captures perfectly both the leafy backwoods setting and the shocking intrusion of non-human elements into it. His Apple Tree Man, all gnarled and knobby yet unmistakably goodhearted, is a particular triumph, and the way Vess portrays the yearning in his body language is magnificent.
Fans of de Lint or Vess, or both, will adore this book. It doesn’t break any new ground in either artist’s repertoire, but it easily stands as a representative of what each of them does best. Put those two together, and the end result is something remarkably enjoyable.
(Little, Brown YA, 2014)