Lia and Alice are identical twins, locked in a struggle of good versus evil that has been passed down their family through the ages. One is the Guardian who protects this world from the Beast and the coming of the Souls, and one is the Gate, through which the He will pass and begin the seven plagues. The prophecy pits sister against sister as each seeks to fulfill their role.
I'm a sucker for a Gothic tale. Northanger Abbey is my favourite of Austen's work, and is fantastically Gothic despite the author's intention of parodying the genre. And of course there's Jane Eyre, with a madwoman stalking the halls, being careless with candles and chomping the house guests. It also happens to be my favourite book ever. (Have I mentioned this before...?) Prophecy of the Sisters is a rainy day book, one that conjures up rustling silk, mourning jewellery and consumption. We've had just the right sort of weather for it these past few days in Melbourne, so I've been eating it up.
Michelle Zink has a hold of her sentences. Written in a faux-historical style, the cadence of the writing is smooth and unhurried, which enhances the dark, secretive mood of the book. Being the first of a trilogy there's lots of world building and pondering. The prophecy is steeped in Christian mythology; the Beast, the apocalypse, fallen angels and the seven plagues. There's also the superstitions surrounding twins and births and "women's magic". The supernatural element is laid on very lightly. There is nothing to frighten here, despite the dark house, the deaths in the family and the Satanic rituals in circles. They are secondary to the mystery and the companionship of Lia's partners-in-crime: Sonia, a psychic, and Luisa, an Italian schoolgirl. Even though there is a love-interest, James, this is a girl's book with girl's characters.
While I enjoyed the lightness of this book, I do feel a tiny bit let down. The prophecy is about the Beast leading his army into the world--death, plague, torture and so on. A taste of terror and supernatural suspense would have gone a long way; but it is clear that Zink prefers mystery to terror. As this is an historical novel, Zink could have easily been carried away with the Gothic-ness of her tale, heaving breasts and whatnot. But her characters too are restrained, and in many ways she has done the right thing. At the beginning of the novel, the brushing of one sister's hair by the other comes off as sinister. While it's pleasing Zink has kept herself on the right side of melodrama, the sinister aspect between the two sisters does not develop further.
The restraint is carried a little too far as the climax is approached. I wanted human reactions and emotions to the terrible event, but everything takes a backseat to the prophecy. Families are messy and explosive--especially when they're put under the pressure of a world-ending prophecy--yet none of the accusations and drama that would have been natural, today or in Victorian times, comes out on the page.
While it was too restrained in parts, and could have done with several more genuinely sinister moments between Lia and Alice, I enjoyed this book, and I hope that Zink takes her characters and tension to the next level in book two. (Guardian of the Gate, April 2010. By the way, check out the website.)
A niggle: Lia makes an assumption early on about who is the Guardian and who is the Gate. When I got to the twist I had to go back and reread certain passages, but no: there is no good reason for Lia making the assumption that she does, and this annoyed me as it took about ten minutes of page scrabbling to convince myself I hadn't missed anything.