I received a free e-ARC of The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner from NetGalley in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a fantasy novel which was published by Orbit Books, an imprint of Little, Brown, in the UK in September 2018.
Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:
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.
Sisters of the Winter Wood is another book that I’d seen all over the place, and I was intrigued by the story. Following two sisters as they come to learn things about their family they’d never even dreamed of, this is a hugely vivid story which pulls the reader into their world.
The main characters are the two sisters, Liba and Laya. They’re very different people, and this is emphasised throughout the book. They have different personalities, they want different things, and they approach the world around them differently. I enjoyed how we were able to see the world through two very different perspectives, and how much more depth that brought to the story. I also liked seeing the secondary characters from these differing viewpoints. Particularly given the nature of some of those characters, it really emphasises how personal perspective influences how we see the world.
As the story develops, we learn more about their town through the experiences of Liba and Laya. They’ve always felt comfortable there, though they’ve known that being Jewish sets them apart from others, and it’s heartbreaking to see that change over the course of the story. Rossner, I felt, did a brilliant job in showing the creeping changes that came over the town and its inhabitants, and how it took relatively little to bring old tensions to the surface. I think this was the aspect of the story I appreciated most, though it’s also one of the saddest elements of the book.
There are a number of themes in this book, all of which I think are woven together skilfully by Rossner. It’s a coming of age story for the sisters, with life-changing consequences for both. It’s a story about otherness, and the inherent lack of security that comes from being other in a place that, whatever the surface might show, might not always be safe for you. It’s also about family and what that means – is it blood, is it upbringing, is it the people you’ve chosen to be around you? As an overall story, I think Sisters of the Winter Wood is both honest and hopeful, and a very apt fantasy tale for our current era.
All that being said, I didn’t love this book as much as I wanted to, or as much as I feel like I should have. However, I would put that down to personal taste rather than anything else here. And the reason I say this is because there wasn’t anything particular that I actually disliked about the book, and in fact there’s a lot about the book that I think is really good; it just wasn’t for me.
Sisters of the Winter Wood is certainly an intriguing addition to current fantasy offerings, and I think it will appeal to anyone looking for a fantasy story that’s very relevant to the current world we live in. It’s got sisterhood, it’s got family secrets, and a whole lot of magic. Although it wasn’t the book for me, I think it has a lot to recommend it, particularly if you like your fantasy a little darker, but without the violence that often comes with that.
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