Return to the magical world of the Hearth and Bard Tales for M.L. Farb’s second entry in the series with Fourth Sister. Set in Nihon, or a Japan of myth and mystery, Fourth Sister is a completely different creature from the Russian fable of Farb’s first Hearth and Bard novel, or the Germanic fairytale of her third.
Fourth Sister follows Shisei, the titular fourth sister of a family of seven, as she struggles to come to terms with the curse and fox that have stalked her throughout her life. Over the course of the novel Shisei leaves home, returns home, learns a trade, practices her poetry, and learns to accept herself because of her unique gifts, rather than in spite of them.
Unlike other fairytale-esque novels, probably the most refreshing thing about Fourth Sister is that this isn’t a romantic story. There is no quest for a prince or hunger for a husband here. If anything, the closest thing to a handsome prince we have in Fourth Sister is the antagonist, far from the romantic ideal. Yet, this is a love story, very much so. A familial love story. A sisterly story.
This is a novel about sacrifice and cleverness and the lengths a family of sisters will go to save one of their own, and the way Shisei, with seemingly nothing but bad luck and a curse, can offer her siblings. This is also a novel about misconceptions, fears, and the strength that comes with understanding—and what incredible things can be accomplished through it.
Delicately rendered with stunning details and the kind of attention that comes with love and care, Farb’s Nihon never feels like a caricature of Japanese history or culture. As with her other Hearth and Bard Tales, copious research obviously went into this novel, and I suspect consultations with a cultural expert, and that shows in every page.
Engaging, heartbreaking, and delightfully ticklish in places, this is a story for fans of shojo manga and faitytale alike. Farb is a born tale-spinner and with her Hearth and Bard Tales has given herself the latitude to explore a world of inspiration. Fourth Sister stands a testament to her talent, her ingenuity, and her heart for the worlds she creates.