The Sisters Grimm was provided for free by NetGalley in exchange for a review. As mentioned in my 2019 book survey, I’ve been wanting to catch up my reading up to new releases, and NetGallery is a wonderful way to do that. So please expect to see some more reviews in the future!
This book contains: child abuse, sexual abuse, self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts, incest, injury, dementia, loss, fat-shaming, slut-shaming, racism – yes that’s a lot, and I’ve probably missed some.
I’ll be discussing some of these vaguely, mainly in regard to their presence in the novel itself rather than any specifics, but I completely understand if you feel it’s best to skip that section. If that’s the case, skip the ‘Trauma’ section.
As a lover of dark fairy tales, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the word Grimm was not the first thing that grabbed my attention. I’m also a fan of the TV show Grimm, so I was curious to see another work of fiction that seemed to be using the term as an identifier. Did these Sisters Grimm have anything in common with the Grimms from the show? Were they monster hunters too? Or was there something else happening here? I had no idea, but I wanted to find out!
The synopsis tells us very little, and it was the mystery of all the random titbits of information thrown in that made me want to learn more. What do we really know about the four Sisters Grimm? They share a father, and for at least part of their childhood, they appear to have lived together. Then for some unknown reason, they were separated at the age of thirteen and did not find one another again until now, right before their seventeenth birthday.
We can rule out their father dying because they’re due to meet him in Everwhere, a mysterious place which could be anything from a family estate on Earth, a hidden city or somewhere completely unearthly. It is quite possible that Everwhere is a realm of death because we do know that one of the sisters is going to die. But if their father didn’t die, where has he been? Why hasn’t he contacted his daughters? And why haven’t the daughters looked for each other until now? At thirteen, they would have been old enough – not to mention decidedly stubborn enough – to find each other if they wanted to. Perhaps there is no love lost between the sisters, after all the synopsis only indicates is that it is imperative that the sisters must find each other, not that they want to do so.
Not much is given away about the nature of the type of fantasy that we can expect in this book, and I’m really curious to find out what the sisters “truly are, and what they can truly do”. I’m leaning towards magic and witches, not just because of the title of the book but also the cover. It’s covered in symbols that I naturally associate with those two things. One thing is for sure, there is a lot of mystery to be found in this book, and I think that is what will keep me hooked.
My feelings towards this book were quite ambiguous throughout; I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t love it either. I continued reading eagerly to know what was going to happen, to follow the trail and find out how the mystery ended. However, at about 60% I began to realise that it was going to take a monumental showdown, and a massive twist at the conclusion to redeem the book in my eyes – and The Sisters Grimm failed to do that.
There were a few clever twists at the end that I didn’t see coming but overall it ended as I expected and that is not a good sign for me. I like to be surprised, I like to be shocked and have my heart torn from my chest, thrown to the ground and stomped all over. I don’t like reading a book that makes me roll my eyes and sigh at yet more trauma, more drama being thrown at the poor characters once again.
As the book went on, I found it increasingly difficult to connect with it. The characters themselves were flimsy, based on and named after fairy tales in a way that reminded me of my time as a role player. They all have a Mary-Sue quality to them; the naive blue-eyed golden-haired girl, the fiery redhead, the token immigrant and the promiscuous Latino. The author touches on the topic of racism several times during the novel, each time lacking depth and understanding. I often got the feeling as though the inspiration for these scenes had come through a whitewashed lens, either something she or someone else had witnessed and passed on. There was no authenticity to the childhood memories of the young girl who had suddenly moved to England and was being told/made to fit in by her strict mother. It felt more like a stereotypical white person’s view of how that child would feel, how that mother would act.
Similarly, there were the ongoing themes of unfit single mothers, a need for a father figure in the home and a daughter’s desire to have a father figure. It felt implied that the protagonist’s lives had ended up in such a tragic mess because their mothers were not able to care for them on their own. Every single mother had a second person helping her raise the child in some shape or form, the author undermining them at every turn. I shouldn’t need to say this, but I’ll say it anyway; being raised by a single parent is different, it can be difficult
The inconsistencies did not just stop with the weak characters either; it dips and dives between first/second person and past and presence tense, and the timelines are all over the place, darting from the present to the past without warning with multiple authors (7 at my counting). One of which was an unknown voice, perhaps the author, or some other unknown entity, which speaks directly to the reader, inviting them to wonder whether they are a Grimm Sister themselves. And honestly, I found that to be extremely toxic considering the book is marketed at young adults and some other themes in the book (see the trauma section below). At first, it felt mysterious and freeing, mysterious and magical, and then you begin to realise just how worrying it is. How it reads more like a cult than the new age vibe you first got from it. I just hope that this doesn’t become a ‘thing’ and young girls don’t suddenly start roaming the streets looking for magical gates – and yes, several characters do this and more unrealistic things that a young woman in this day and age would never do.
The Sisters Grimm is the author’s first foray into fantasy, however, I would argue heavily against classing this as a fantasy novel. For me, it is magical realism rather than fantasy or urban fantasy. According to Merriam-Webster, magical realism is “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction”. As mentioned, this novel is chock-full of realism (perhaps a little too much) and while there are magical elements present, there is more emphasis placed on the characters and their history than any of the fantasy elements. In a fantasy novel, there needs to be a balance and a fusion between the two, and in The Sisters Grimm, there is neither.
The novel also doesn’t seem to know quite what type of fantasy it wants to be. It’s an oddball mixture of fairy tales, elemental magic and even a bit of superheroes and comics thrown in there. As one of the commenters on GoodReads points out, the entire design of the world the author has created doesn’t make sense. The reader is told that X happens, but no explanation is offered as to why that is so. The jumbling of random fairy tale retellings throughout the novel just adds to the mess of confusion, especially with the connection to the Brothers Grimm. My first impression that there would be a link to them was correct and nothing like I imagined – there is no way I could have imagined this.
It is being put forward as a fantasy novel by the publishers, and it’s also the first book in a trilogy, which is honestly baffling to me. While I have many issues with the book, the ending wasn’t one of them; there were no loose ends, everything was wrapped up, and it reads like a perfect stand-alone novel. I honestly have no idea how that is going to be a part of a trilogy unless it’s going to be a really loosely based trilogy in which the books are set in the same ‘world’ i.e. that of the Sisters Grimm. Even then, the possibilities are quite small considering how this book ended. It feels badly planned out, and unless there is some serious backpedalling and doing what we in the role-playing world used to refer to as ‘god-modding’ (actions that are all-powerful and completely unrealistic) I don’t see how things are going to work out smoothly and realistically.
Trauma was the biggest theme of this book, which is why I’ve ended up devoting an entire subsection of the review to the topic. It was quite troublesome to find so much trauma in this book because a) it’s supposed to be a fantasy novel and b) you’re someone with PTSD and mental health conditions. While I’m no stranger to fantasy novels including forms of trauma – after all you’d need to be living under a rock not to at least be familiar with the violence and trauma present in Game of Thrones series – I don’t expect it to be at the forefront of the novel. Fantasy to me is about the theme of fantasy, the world-building, the magic, and anything else is character development. Take all that away, and you’ve just got contemporary fiction, possibly chick lit. Either way; not fantasy, and certainly not something I would have read if it hadn’t come attached with the fantasy label.
My second point (b) made reading this one a less than fun ride, but it does offer me a unique perspective as a reviewer. Most notable for me as someone who has gone through several of the traumas that Ms. van Praag threw at her characters was how very little time she took to actually explore any of them. One of her characters was an Olympian hopeful at one point who fell out of the race due to injury and suffered the earth-shattering revelation of her body betraying her. I’ve been there, and it’s really not as simple as saying ‘she fell into a deep depression and her aunt helped her through it, the end’ which essentially how it was described. That’s just one example. There is a particularly disturbing self-harm scene which appeared to be just thrown in there out of nowhere. While the character was certainly in pain, there was absolutely nothing up until that point that even suggested that she would self-harm, and furthermore the scene read as if it was something she had done before.
As you saw from the trigger warning list at the start of this review, the list of traumas for just one novel is immense, and there was absolutely zero warning for any of it at the start of the novel. Personally I believe that there should be no censorship when it comes to writing as fiction is a useful way to talk to people, to explore real situations in a safe environment. That being said, this novel was not one of those situations. I didn’t feel that the author was trying to explore anything or to educate people about mental health, trauma or weight shaming. No, rather it felt like she had a checklist and was ticking it off to make the book juicier.
The only exception was the relationship between one of the characters and their grandmother, who has dementia. That was written with such care and heart that I would say with some certainty that the author has first or second-hand experience with that type of relationship. It was the only relationship in the novel that caught my attention and felt real rather than something out of a soap opera.
Overall, The Sisters Grimm was a book that I had to really sit down afterwards and pick apart to understand what my feelings were towards it. I’ve written a pretty critical review, yet I didn’t finish the book absolutely hating it. The fact that I actually finished it is the first sign that I didn’t. The many issues with the book that I’ve underlined in this review come down to three things:
- This is not a fantasy novel and should not be marketed as such.
- You don’t need to make every character’s life horribly depressingly, filled with trauma and endless drama to make it feel realistic. If this was something that happened to them due to them being Sisters Grimm then it was not made nearly clear enough. Plus, trigger warnings are a must when you’re putting this much trauma in one book. While writing this review, I came across an author who very kindly commented on her own title on GoodReads and listed a content warning. I can understand why publishers would hesitate from putting trigger warnings at the front of books as it would affect sales and eventually this would have a negative effect on all authors as it would lead to a type of censorship. This course of action is a perfect compromise which doesn’t give away the plot and helps protect readers.
- Overall the book feels rushed, not felt out properly and this feeling is cemented by the thought of this being book one of a trilogy. I don’t think that the author quite understood that when you step into the world of fantasy writing, you need to create an entirely new world. You can’t just plop things on top of the pre-existing one and say voilà it’s fantasy. It doesn’t work and it really shows.
For those just looking for a quick enjoyable magical realism read with a touch of romance then this may be just what you’re looking for, but for me, as someone who likes things to go that bit deeper, it really wasn’t quite up to snuff.
More Books by Menna van Praag
Over to you
While The Sisters Grimm didn’t end up being my cup of tea, it might be just what you’re looking for if you like magical realism. If you’re more of a fantasy fan like me, take a look at some of my favourite fantasy books!
Are you a fan of magical realism?
Do you think authors/publishers should add a warning for certain content to their books?
If you’ve got any questions about the book or the review, let me know in the comments!
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