Published by Redhook on September 25, 2018
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Format: ARC, eBook
Captivating and boldly imaginative, with a tale of sisterhood at its heart, Rena Rossner's debut fantasy invites you to enter a world filled with magic, folklore, and the dangers of the woods.
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.
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.
Friends, I love this book. I think some readers who aren’t fans of verse in their novels may not enjoy it, but for anyone else, I highly recommend it. I want to say that before anything else because I went into reading this novel knowing very little other than that I loved its cover and found the synopsis enticing. I’m so glad I did. It captured my heart and my imagination right from its opening pages.
Although I love Tati’s stories and his answers, I wonder why a small voice is a daughter’s voice. Sometimes I wish my voice could be loud–like a roar. But that is not a modest way to think. The older I get, the more immodest my thoughts become.
Also, here’s some recommended listening for this review/this book before I really dive into things:
Okay, what makes this book so special? When I really love a book, I always like to ask myself that question. What is it that makes me tick? To me, this book wove magic into each page, gradually building from a small, quiet start into a beautiful ending and illustrating beautiful themes and messages along the way. It takes elements and inspiration from a huge number of fairytales, from Jane Yolen to the Goblin Market (which is one of my favorite poems, by the way). In a way, I guess I was bound to enjoy this.
Also, the characters are great. YAY.
The majority of the story is told from the perspective of Liba Lieb, a young Chassidic Jewish girl on the cusp of womanhood. She lives on the far edge of her village, or shtetl, along with her sister, mother, and father. While there is a thriving Jewish community there, her family feels ostracized because of her mother’s lineage: she was not born Jewish, but converted to her husband’s faith when they married.
Liba struggles with things that would be relatable to many: she’s inquisitive but stern, devout but anxious, and often deeply uncomfortable in her own skin. She wants dearly to fall in love and to protect her family. Her development throughout the novel was portrayed beautifully and naturally; I liked that while her faith was very important to her, she grows along with it and strengthens her own will through her faith rather than squashing it down for the sake of piety.
Laya’s chapters are told in free verse, and as I said earlier, some readers might find it hard to connect with her chapters. I actually did at first, but I ended up finding her chapters a fitting element to the story in the end, especially as more shades of the Goblin Market poem by Christina Rosetti were introduced (also, please go read the original poem – it’s sensual and rich with imagery).
There are nearly seven of them.
Men and nearly men…
They sing and call out
through the trees,
a soft and mournful melody.
Come buy, come buy,
I hear them cry.
Laya may have different struggles from her sister, but hers are depicted with no less sympathy and emotion. She chafes under the structure of the religion Liba finds enlightening and has a driving wish to escape from their cloistered life. She wants to flirt and travel, to skip and dance and fly far from her home. She’s also fifteen and discovering her own sense of independence; I liked how her character ultimately fits in with the original Goblin Market one while remaining distinct.
Other Characters and Elements
I won’t spoil a very significant thing about Liba and Laya or their parents here – I didn’t know it going into the story, and I think that ideally, other readers should, too. One thing about this element I’m not mentioning does cause body image issues for Liba, but I’ll note it at the very end of my review with the trigger warnings. I also recommend reading Melanie’s review of this novel, as she expounds on Liba’s body image issues far more eloquently than I could.
As for other characters:
The Love Interests
I won’t spoil these here. While the focus of the story is really on Liba and Laya’s relationship, each sister has their own romance during the course of the story. One of the primary motifs in the novel (besides sisterhood and familial ties) is the girls’ growing awareness of their own sexuality. If you’re at all familiar with the Goblin Market poem, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. 👀
I do prefer one sister’s romance over the other, as I felt that it was developed more organically and had less of a fated feel to it (so to speak). Even my preferred romance did develop a bit quickly, but for me, it made sense in the context of the story and knowing that the characters had long harbored budding romantic feelings for the other person prior to the start of the novel. The other sister’s romance (or romances) had much more of a fairytale feel in them; I was glad that the novel didn’t really end with a “and they all lived happily-ever-after” type wrap up involving that relationship.
The Parents & Family
If I were to complain about anything in this story, it would be that I wish readers got to see more of Liba and Laya’s Tati and Mami and their extended families; they all felt far less well-developed. Rossner makes it work, though, by focusing so intently on the actions and emotions of the two sisters. Honestly, as someone with a younger sister, I felt that Rossner did a wonderful job of depicting a complex and sometimes difficult – but ultimately loving – relationship between sisters.
I know that nothing between us will ever be the same again. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s the way things are meant to be. We are always changing, like the moon.
Themes and Historical Context
The author, Rena Rossner, drew from her own family history in writing this story. While there are fantastical elements, there’s also the real-world parallels: her own family left Ukraine as a result of pogroms in and around Dubossary, which Rossner fictionalizes slightly to create her setting. She writes eloquently in the author’s note about how false accusations of blood libel (that Jews used blood from deceased non-Jews to make matza) and other anti-Semitic, racist rhetoric motivated many pogroms across Ukraine, devastating many Jewish communities.
One of the main themes of The Sisters of the Winter Wood, at least as I read it, was the idea of “othering” and the harm that can do to people. A murder mystery plays out along the backdrop of the novel’s plot, and with its heightened tension comes increased anti-Semitism from Laya and Liba’s non-Jewish neighbors. The author does not expect the sisters to “solve” anti-Semitism on their own (which would be a huge and unfair burden to place on two marginalized young women); rather, they gain strength through fellowship in their shtetl community and the support of their Mami’s extended (non-Jewish) family.
Also at the end of the author’s note is this passage: “I was very inspired by the sensuality of [various fairytales] and also the sensuality of Goblin Market, and was determined to write something that contained this element. As a great lover of fantasy and history, I have also always been seeking a way to combine the two and to delve more into my own Russian/Romanian/Moldovian/Ukrainian heritage.” I think she accomplished those goals with grace and artistry, all while deftly blending in her Jewish heritage and developing vivid characters.
Content warnings: antisemitism (always challenged), body image issues (very prominent on Liba’s part, including thoughts of dieting, but she ultimately gets to a much better place with how she feels about it without losing weight or dieting), captivity, violence, drugging, grey area consent (not depicted positively), misogynistic comments, talk of past rape, death, torture.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Redhook for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from a pre-release copy and may be subject to change in the final published version.