Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood - Rena Rossner

The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

My rating: {★★★☆☆}

YA Fantasy Fiction
Published September 27th 2018 by Orbit

Source: Review copy sent by Publisher
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.
Thank you SOOOOO much to my part time co-blogger Alissa (welcome to the team BTW!!! ;) )for reading and reviewing this unsolicited ARC for me!

Alissa's Review

** I voluntarily read and reviewed a review copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.**

This is first and foremost a story of the love between sisters: two very different girls, bound by blood, and left to look after each other when their parents suddenly leave. This is also a story about the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, and a story about becoming who you were meant to be.

“There are lots of different kinds of beasts in the world… People are not always what they seem. And you are more powerful than you’ve ever dreamed.”

This book appealed to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has a gorgeous cover that draws you in. Secondly, it is a fairy tale set in Eastern Europe, and built on a foundation of true historical events. (I love when an author can write intelligent fiction encompassing actual historical events and characters into their world.) Thirdly, it was recommended for fans of The Bear and the Nightingale, and Uprooted, both of which I really enjoyed.

Unfortunately, this book fell short of my expectations. I wanted so badly to love it. I really tried. However I found the language was disappointing, and Rossner failed to convey the sense of place that Katherine Arden and Naomi Novik were so readily able to portray in their books. This is Rossner’s debut novel, and I could tell.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood follows two girls as different as could be:

Liba – 17 years old, takes after her father, serious, scholarly and can turn into a bear.
Laya – 15 years old, takes after her mother, a dreamer, wants love and adventures and can turn into a swan.

Each chapter in the novel alternates perspective between Liba and Laya. Liba’s chapters are told in everyday prose, while Laya’s chapters are told in “poetry.” Maybe I’m stupid but I just didn’t get it. It didn’t have any rhythm or rhyme that I could tell and if you read the lines continuously, it read just like normal prose. The language and descriptions each sister uses in her chapters was more than enough to convey their characters without having to rely on the poetry.

Both main characters I found a bit annoying. The choices they made were frustrating a few times I found myself wanting to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. But then again, they are 15 and 17 year old girls, so I’ll let it go. Neither of our heroines are bad-ass warrior chicks in the mould of Katniss or Feyre, but they both had a subtle strength of their own.

“I may not be a bear, but that is not what makes me stronger than all these men.”

The story moved quickly, and there was no info-dumping but I found some of the plot points repetitive. The secondary characters were interesting and well developed, and the romance was sweet, though predictable.

Beneath the plot of this novel is the ever-present context of prejudice and hatred towards Jews in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. While this sub-plot drives the actions of some of the characters, it is not the main theme of the novel. I found out at the end of the novel that Rossner’s family were from Dubossary (the town in which the girls live) and that her family left Dubossary (and other nearby towns) for America to escape the pogroms. I loved hearing her explanation behind some of the inspiration behind the fairy tale.

Overall, this was a nice story about two sisters finding out who they are in the world and what they mean to each other. It was a promising debut from Rena Rossner, but I would love to see more atmosphere in her future works.

“I got so lost in trying to take care of everyone else that I forgot to take care of myself. It’s my turn now. And I’m going to be the beast I’ve spent so much time denying.”

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