TITLE: The Sisters of the Winter Wood
AUTHOR: Rena Rossner
PUBLICATION DATE: 27th September 2018
MY RATING: 2.5 Stars
“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.”
I went into this book with such high hopes. I absolutely love books based around Jewish and Russian folklore, there have been many in the last year or two that have been fantastic; The Bear and the Nightingale, Uprooted, Spinning Silver… These are some of the books that The Sisters of the Winter Wood (SOTWW) has been compared to. HOWEVER, this book simply didn’t live up to it’s comparisons. I see what the author was trying to do here, but authors such as Naomi Novik and Katherine Arden pull of a similar thing with much more sophistication.
One of the big places where this book fell short was with the writing style. It felt quite stilted and it just didn’t flow. It all felt like it was written by someone without a natural understanding of the English language (and I know that Rossner was born and raised in America, and simply has Ukrainian heritage, so that’s not the case here). The dialogue especially didn’t flow naturally and didn’t feel natural at all to read. It felt very stunted and it wasn’t pleasant or easy to read at all. I believe SOTWW is Rossner’s debut, so perhaps this can be put down to inexperience and the more she writes, the more this might improve. I feel like with some honing of the writing style, it wouldn’t detract from the story. A story with less plot can be carried through with beautiful poetic writing, so there is potential here, but in this book it just didn’t reach that mark.
A part of the Jewish/Russian folklore retelling subgenre I adore is the atmosphere that is created. Many of the books I have read similar to SOTWW are set in an unspecified medieval time period and the locations are described richly. They really make you feel like you’re out in some freezing cold forest in Russia or Ukraine. This again, was missing from this book. I couldn’t grasp at all what time period this was intended to be set in; they live in a society where boys and girls aren’t even allowed to touch, they live in small one cell cabins and sleep in a hay loft, they have an ‘ice box’ instead of a fridge, but they also have Thermos flasks? And sofas and stoves (the brand Thermos is actually specified once and a general flask mentioned again later). This really spoiled the immersion because I just couldn’t grasp what sort of a world I was supposed to be picturing. The historic events that the Author’s Note specify that the book was inspired by happened in the early 1900s, so this all points towards that being the time period that it was set. However, the other influence Rossner cites is Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, which certainly has that medieval fairytale feel. I really feel like the author got stuck here between her two influences and tried to bring those two very different settings together and it just hasn’t worked. She’s tried to write a retelling of Goblin Market and a historial fiction retelling of the Jewish Pogroms. My advice would be that she’s simply been too ambitous and that at times this story feels like two separate stories fighting for dominance. I’d also like to say that I really appreciate that this is an own voices story about the authors heritage and that is incredible to see, I just don’t think it worked in this instance.
I felt like the whole setting of the weather conditions and the surroundings, as well as the time period all felt quite under developed and combative. If more time had perhaps been spent developing the setting then I may have felt some of that atmosphere and immersion that really benefits a fairytale story and makes it believeable. Without setting up a world in which fantastical events are viable, a fantasy story really loses its credibility, in my opinion. This story definitely required a suspension of disbelief, more so than a lot of other fantasies, and I found that without the world building elements I couldn’t find myself managing to suspend my disbelief as much as the story needed. I found some elements to simply be too much and too far fetched. The main magical reveal happens within 25 pages with no build up at all leading up to it. There’s no “disappearing glass at the zoo” moment like in Harry Potter that makes you start to question things and build up to magical occurences, the magical element is just thrown at you.
It’s not all bad though, I can definitely see potential within Rossner’s writing that with practise, experience and the right editor could develop into a much more sophisticated product. For example, one of the interesting things about the way this book was written, was that it was a dual perspective between the two sisters with one written in normal prose and one written in verse. At first this irritated me because I felt like we didn’t get to know the other sister, Laya very well because we got so few words from her and the form seemed out restrictive and more poetic and than actually story-telling. However, I see what the author was trying to achieve here, the verse delivery makes Laya seem more free and connected to her spirit and nature, which is exactly what Laya is. We eventually do learn more about Laya’s character through the other sister, Liba’s, eyes.
Similarly, one of the unique things this book had to offer was the inclusion of Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases within the writing. This was very interesting and makes the reader feel much more connected to the culture that the story is about. However, there are on average 3-4 non-English words, sometimes up and over half a dozen, per page and having to look up that many words across three separate glossaries in the back of the book whilst trying to read makes the story incredibly slow progress. Eventually I gave up looking up the words and only looked up ones where the sentence made no sense without the definition. I feel like a better solution would have perhaps been to employ the use of footnotes. With footnotes on the page the reader would be able to understand the meaning of the Hebrew and Yiddish words without having to keep breaking their flow and immersion by looking up words in the back. This is another example of where the potential is there but the execution lets it down.
I’m sorry to say it, but one of the main reasons I didn’t like this story was simply the plot. Or lack thereof. For a 400+ page book, surprisingly little happens. They spend 300 pages just running back and forth through the forest for very little reason. The climax was messy and just didn’t really feel like enough. For a book based on such tragedy, everyone remains unscathed and everyone ends up happy. Where there should have been tension between characters, there wasn’t (parents abandon children, almost leading to their death but all is forgiven; mother cheats on father and no one really cares, etc). There was insta love and weird sexual tension where there shouldn’t have been (though I did appreciate the author’s attempt at dealing with the sexual and romantic awakening of two young girls, something that many authors have ignored). I just would have liked more plot throughout, I just felt for a large portion of the book that nothing really happened. I honestly probably would have DNF’d it if I wasn’t reviewing it.
To put it simply, I just didn’t click with this story. I didn’t feel the atmosphere and I didn’t get on with the story. Overall, it felt like a less sophisicated, more amateur attempt at the genre that authors such as Novik and Arden are pulling off fantastically. When compared to the competiton, The Sisters of the Winter Wood doesn’t hold up with the same level of excellence that you might expect and therefore falls flat. I really wanted to love this story, it has so much potential, but the execution just wasn’t up to scratch. Unless you’ve read everything in the fairytale retelling genre and you’re desperate for more, or have some sort of specific connection to the subject matter, then I think this is one to skip.