03 December, 2011

'Sisters Red' by Jackson Pearce

'Sisters Red' first caught my eye in the bookstore because of the awesome cover. I love YA, I love adapted fairy tales, and I love the growing population of badass teenage girls in YA fiction these days. This modernization of the Little Red Riding Hood story has all of these elements, plus a certain something to it that made me really enjoy it despite its flaws.

The story opens with the big bad wolf come to call. The two sisters, Scarlett and Rosie, are still young-- about thirteen and eleven, respectively-- when a werewolf (here called a Fenris) comes to their house and attacks them, killing their grandmother and wounding Scarlett before she manages to hurt it enough to drive it away. Scarlett loses an eye from this battle, and becomes a girl with a mission: to hunt and kill every Fenris she can lay hands on, no matter what it takes. Five years later the girls live something of a phantom life. They aren't in school, they don't work, they live in their grandmother's house and do odd jobs here and there to make enough money to live by while they focus on hunting. A little suspension of disbelief is necessary here, clearly, but the premise isn't implausible, just improbable. The plot thickens when their longtime friend and Scarlett's hunting partner Silas returns from a year in California. Silas is the son of the woodsman who lived down the road from the girls and their grandmother; they've known him all their lives. But for Rosie his return is the start of an entirely new experience, as she begins to fall in love with him. Their lives are further shaken by the realization that the Fenris population in their town is increasing because the wolves are tracking a Potential (a man who they can turn into a wolf like them) and Scarlett has the chance to avenge herself on the wolf who killed her grandmother and took her eye.

Now, I know this sounds like the setup for a teen romance with a little werewolf drama thrown in on the side. But in reality the book is a nice mix of action and character story-- there are a lot of tense scenes of hunting and fighting, the plot moves quickly along, and while there were no surprise twists, I enjoyed it. The romance between Rosie and Silas feels natural and genuine, as does their attempts to hide their feelings from Scarlett, who has a one-track mind and sees any deviation from their purpose as a betrayal. I really like both the sisters. Their characterizations aren't terribly complex-- Scarlett is obsessed and driven, with no thought for what her life could be like if she gave up hunting, while Rosie yearns for a different life but can't bring herself to let her sister down. I found Scarlett just a bit flat-- her emotional landscape mostly revolves around keeping Rosie safe and wanting to kill Fenris-- though maybe it's just that Rosie is more in touch with her feelings and Scarlett doesn't let herself examine whether or not she has any. But she's undeniably a badass in the Buffy Summers school of badassery (how many times can I say 'badass' in one review?) and Pearce writes that believably and with quite a bit of flair. Come on, who doesn't love the mental image of a teenage girl in an eyepatch throwing hatchets around? I almost would have liked a more stereotypical "this is the Boss Wolf and if you kill him all Fenris will die" sort of climax for Scarlett, because it would have left me feeling like she had the potential to change, like she might have learned or might someday learn something from Rosie and Silas's insistence that it's okay to want something for themselves. But that part of the ending was the only thing in the book that surprised me-- after the Big Bad is killed, Rosie and Silas go off traveling together, leaving Scarlett at home to hunt alone. But it's clear that Scarlett is happy that way, that's her calling in life and she loves it.

I liked the sisterly relationship here. I don't have a sister, but I've known some of my best friends long enough that they might as well be, and I really appreciated the intricate "I love you but I hate you but I want what's best for you but I want to shake you by the shoulders" dance between Rosie and Scarlett. The most complicated emotions in the book are passed between the two of them, which is as it should be. Silas is part of the equation as Scarlett's friend and Rosie's would-be boyfriend, but neither of the girls will ever know him the way they know each other. And while the line about them being two halves of the same heart was a little overused, the bond between the girls is strong enough to deserve the metaphor.

This was a fun read, and a fast one, and scarier than I'd been expecting when I started. I'll definitely be reading Pearce's next (an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel) and hoping to see other YA authors start adapting fairy tales that don't have a handsome prince and a wedding at the end of them. There is a great diversity of tropes in the canon of folklore that YA fiction could really benefit by having under its belt, and Sisters Red is a great start to what I hope will become a trend of using them.


  1. I read this after it was involved in that whole feminist YA books dustup, and I liked it quite a bit. My biggest criticism is that it was maybe a little... expected, I guess? I dunno, I think Little Red Riding Hood could be treated a little less literally for a more interesting exploration. But that would be a different book, I guess, and I did think *this* book was fairly compelling and enjoyable.

    If you're looking for more YA folklore adaptations to read, give "A Long, Long Sleep" by Anna Sheehan a try. It's based on Sleeping Beauty, and the synopsis online doesn't make it sound like anything interesting, but I was surprised by how much I liked it.

  2. Awesome, I'll definitely add that to my list. :)

    And yeah, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. I wasn't expecting a whole lot from it, which probably helped. But I was engaged the whole time I was reading, there wasn't a dull moment. It also helped that she kept it short; there was no extraneous filler. We'll see if she gets more adventurous with Sweetly, I'll be reading that one early in the new year.