Book: “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” by Rena Rossner
Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!
Book Description: Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.
But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.
Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…
The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.
Review: The book description for this title reads like an itemized list of “what Serena looks for in fantasy fiction.” Fairytale-like? Check. Sisterhood? Check. Mysterious men? Check. Add to that a gorgeous cover and requesting this book really was a no brainer. And I’m definitely glad I did, as not only were the expectations raised by the description met, but the book offered up several other unexpected surprise delights.
Much of the main plot points are lain out in the book description itself. The two sisters who are suddenly thrust into a new reality, one filled with shape-shifters and magic. The sudden absence of beloved parents. The appearance of a strange group of men. And throughout it all, the looming fear of what it truly means to be these new, strange beings who can transform into bears and swans. Who are their people? Who is their family? And who will they be once they allow this power to emerge?
I very much enjoyed the fairytale feeling that was at the heart of this story. Many elements involved, the dark woods, mysterious stranger but oddly beautiful and compelling strangers who temp with delicious, rare fruits, animal transformations, and sibling relationships, all ring for the type of tale we expect. But what made it even more exciting to read was that together as a whole, this was a completely unique tale. Reading a bit of how the author read the book, it sounds like it is partially based on some Jewish folklore, so while there were familiar pieces (remnants of “The Goblin Market” story), it felt like a breath of fresh air into a genre often bogged down in the same stories told a million different ways.
The writing in this book completely supported this fairytale medium, deftly laid down in beautiful and lyrical strokes. On top of this, the author included a good amount of the Yiddish language within the story and dialogue. Not familiar with the language myself, I often had to take advantage of the definitions at the end of the book, but I truly appreciate the added authenticity these language choices gave the book. Rossner did not pull back and dumb down any of these choices for the unfamiliar reader and added to the feeling of immersion in this world and culture.
Further on the writing, going in, I was unaware that half of the book was written in verse. The story alternates chapters between Liba and Laya, and Laya’s portions are told through poetry. This was an interesting choice to not only diversity the type of writing but to further examine the differences between Liba and Laya. Liba, the older sister and, rather stereotypically, more responsible sister is written in very straightforward prose. She presents her experiences, thoughts and emotions clearly and without much embellishment. This further ties together towards her animal form, the bear, an Earth bound creatures that is strong and steady. Laya, on the other hand, is a being of the air and has the ability to transform into a swan, so her bits flow wildly to and fro and benefit from the stylistic choices available through poetic style.
While I liked the overall choices behind writing these characters this way, it did ultimately present a bit of a problem with how I connected with each character. I was likely always going to gravitate towards the more pragmatic Liba, but Laya was also slightly damaged for both her storyline (she’s the one to get into trouble with the mysterious strangers after, something that is obviously a terrible idea from the get go) and the fact that she simply had much less page time being written from a poetic form. But overall, stories of sisterly bonds are always going to pull together for me, so even while I was always anxious to return to Liba’s portions of the story, Laya pulled her own weight as far as valuing her sister which ultimately endeared her to me.
There is also a good deal of history woven through the text, especially regarding the tensions that can so quickly build and the anti-semitism that can lurk below the surface even in seemingly happy secular and Jewish communities. Some of the portions of this book were rather hard to read with the challenges that Liba, Laya and her people face, but it was also a good exploration of how easily prejudices can be used to outcast an entire group of people from a home they’ve loved and built for years.
From the book description, and the fact that it is targeted towards adult audiences, I had some assumptions about this being a darker fairytale. And while there are dark elements in it, I’m not sure that that is truly the genre (or audience) that this story is geared towards. Instead, it read much more like a fantasy romance and I think would greatly appeal to YA readers, especially those who like reading poetry. But that being said, I do think all fantasy fans, especially fairytale fantasy fans, will enjoy this book.
Rating 8: A strong new entry in fairytale fiction, especially for those looking for unique tales with a heavy dose of sisterhood and romance.
“The Sisters of the Winter Wood” is a new title so isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Atmospheric Woods.”
Find “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” at your library using WorldCat!