Jane Yolen's novel Sister Light, Sister Dark and its sequel, White Jenna, tell the true story of a myth and a legend of an imaginary world. They also tell the history written about the events of the story, and the academic controversies surrounding various scholars' work. The author skillfully weaves these elements into a complex tapestry of tale that I can't recommend highly enough.
The myth is that of Great Alta, Mother Goddess of the people of the Dales, an island country where Garunian invaders from the mainland have sought to supplant Her with their own gods. Most of the people of the Dales live quiet agrarian-pastoral lives under Garunian rule, accepting their foreign king, but still believe in the legend of the White Queen, the Anna, an avatar of the Goddess who brings with her change and upheaval, endings and new beginnings. The coming of the Anna is heralded by prophecy and The Book of Light, written by Great Alta herself and the basis of the religion of the Hames, where women warriors live in independent societies. It is in the Hames that women learn and practice the secret magic of calling forth their dark sisters, mirror selves who join them in the shadows of moon and firelight from puberty onwards.
The story of Sister Light, Sister Dark is that of the girl Jenna, who was orphaned at birth and whose midwife dies bringing her to the women of Selden Hame after her orphaned at birth and brought to Selden Hame for fostering. Is the whitehaired Jenna the legendary Anna? Nobody really knows, least of all the priestess of Selden Hame, who fears and envies her adopted granddaughter. Sister Light, Sister Dark tells how Jenna grows up in the Hame and gets caught up in great events during the thirteenth year of her life, when she and the other girls go on their mission year, traveling from Hame to Hame and learning of the world.
Yolen's use of duality in both this book and its second half/sequel, White Jenna, is simply amazing. We're not just talking simple male-female duality, sun-moon, light-dark, all the classic stereotypes. The relationships between the women of the Hames and their dark sisters is far more complex and interesting than that. Duality is such a fundamental concept that it's great to see it given an interesting new twist. I mean, once you wrap your head around the concept of individuality (I am me), duality's right there. Self and Other, the most fundamental duality of all. But Yolen's dark sisters are not just the Other, they are also the Self. I think the lesson to take away from the idea of finding another within yourself is that you can also find yourself within others. And that's fuckin' cool.
Yolen, Jane. Sister Light, Sister Dark. New York: Tor (Tom Doherty Associates), 1988.