My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Length: 464 pages
Release date: 25 September 2018
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.
Maybe I want to feel this way for as long as I possibly can. Maybe it’s my turn to choose.
This was a strange, surprising book. It’s Wintersong meets You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone with a distinct Eastern European twist, and reminds me at every turn of The Hazel Wood. It’s a very, very slow-paced coming-of-age tale featuring magic, discovery and lush imagination, heavily relying on subtlety. Personally, the story was too slow and occasionally confusing for me to remain immersed. Which is why, even though I’m describing it as a mashup of two novels I adore, I didn’t quite enjoy The Sisters of the Winter Wood.
Let me explain. The beginning and ending are pretty cool, with several game changers and thrilling developments, but the middle drags for forever. Most of it is repetition–the Meisels tell Liba she and Laya should get out of the woods and move into town where they’re safe, Liba says no and worries about her secret while falling for Dovid, Laya wanders off with Fedir only to reappear in a hazy stupor some time later with Liba panicked, repeat for 75% of the book. Most characters besides the sisters are not memorable enough to fill in the gaps left by a minimal plot, and despite Liba constantly in a state of worry, I can’t really feel the suspense through the pages.
Simply put, it gets dull after a while. Things pick up by the end, at which point the mystery that’s been hovering in the background for the whole book is solved, but I feel that’s another of The Sisters of the Winter Wood‘s missteps: The ‘solution’ seems to come out of nowhere, and it’s one of those cases where the protagonist suddenly has an epiphany and realises the truth based on several inconclusive clues that realistically don’t lead to the one correct answer.
Laya’s verse chapters add to the general sense of mystical confusion, which may be a pro or a con depending on your tastes. Since I tend to prefer clear storytelling, I felt they were not that effective. If you love beautiful, abstract poetry, you’ll probably take to them more than I did–for me, most of Laya’s chapters sadly came off as a jumble of somewhat contrived purple prose. Every time a Laya chapter rolled around I found myself wishing to get back to Liba’s POV, because at least Liba could be relied on to articulate what was going on.
However, there were several things I admired about The Sisters of the Winter Wood. One was the slow burn relationship between Liba and Dovid, which is much more understated than most YA romance because of their strict Orthodox Jewish culture. I thought it developed in an innocent and lovely way, and Rena Rossner did a splendid job showing how they came to care and stand up for each other. There’s absolutely nothing steamy between the two, but there doesn’t need to be. Their interactions are purely organic.
In a tone of voice that tells me it takes everything he has, he says, “I trust you. I’ll wait for you. How can I help?”
I also liked the aspects of Ukrainian/Moldavian/Russian/Romanian folklore. Rossner’s story overflows with both Jewish and Eastern European culture, from which the fantastical elements are heavily inspired. Many Yiddish words appear in the story. The Yiddish dictionary at the back is helpful to decipher conversations, albeit rather inconvenient if you read in ebook format as I did. Thankfully, most Yiddish words can be inferred from context.
Finally, I’m partial to the theme of sisterhood that runs subtly through the novel. I just would have liked a lot more of it, like I’d have liked more of the mythological elements. When the sisters finally mastered their respective magical powers (keeping it vague to avoid spoilers), which had been constantly alluded to beforehand, it was so underwhelming.
I really wanted to fall in love with this book. I think, if I’d read it in small doses, I could have. The Sisters of the Winter Wood is atmospheric, introspective and filled with lyrical, subtle writing. As a fantasy novel, it runs out of momentum too soon.
*Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*