The Light of the Midnight Stars
- Author: Rena Rossner
- Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction
- Publication Date: April 13, 2021
- Publisher: Orbit
Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book. I am offering my honest opinion voluntarily.
CONTENT WARNING: antisemitism, murder, death, grief, rape (off-page)
An evocative combination of fantasy, history, and Jewish folklore, The Light of the Midnight Stars is fairytale-inspired novel from the author of The Sisters of the Winter Wood.
Deep in the Hungarian woods, the sacred magic of King Solomon lives on in his descendants. Gathering under the midnight stars, they pray, sing and perform small miracles – and none are more gifted than the great Rabbi Isaac and his three daughters. Each one is blessed with a unique talent – whether it be coaxing plants to grow, or predicting the future by reading the path of the stars.
When a fateful decision to help an outsider ends in an accusation of witchcraft, fire blazes through their village. Rabbi Isaac and his family are forced to flee, to abandon their magic and settle into a new way of life. But a dark fog is making its way across Europe and will, in the end, reach even those who thought they could run from it. Each of the sisters will have to make a choice – and change the future of their family forever.
I’ve recently come across a lot of OwnVoices Jewish books, but this is the first time that I’ve ever read a Jewish-themed fantasy. I loved the book, and devoured the entire thing in a single day. I knew that this most likely wasn’t going to have a happy ending, just like so many stories throughout Jewish history, but to me, it was worth every moment.
I’ve never read a mainstream book that fully integrated Jewish religious practices and customs into the story before this one. This book is very much a book written by a Jew for a Jewish audience, but it also makes the frequently unknown and commonly misunderstood aspects of Judaism accessible to a wider audience. To me, this book felt like coming home. There was something about reading a book where the prayers of my people, the religious practices, and the customs were slipped into the text in such a natural way. I grew up exposed to Orthodox Judaism, which is close to how the characters practice their faith, and it’s so rare to see in books.
The family of Rabbi Isaac Solomonar live a pious life. They each have their own form of magic which is strongly linked to their faith. The rabbi has three daughters: Hannah, with her ability to connect to the earth, grow things, and heal; Sarah, with her unpredictable and often uncontrolled connection to fire, and her frustration with the limitations of being female; and Levana, with her connection to the stars. The strength of this book was the way the story was told through the eyes of each of these MCs, who had their own goals and struggles, even as they intertwined. I managed to connect with each of the sisters, as different as they were.
When tragedy strikes on the heels of the Black Mist, a pogrom (antisemitic massacre) occurs and the family has to leave the town. They find a new place to live, but make the decision to change who they are to draw less attention to themselves. This means new names, a new profession for Rabbi Isaac, and a complete turnaround in regard to their religion. They pose as non-Jews to better fit in, but this also means giving up the link to their magic.
The Black Mist itself is a combination of symbolism for antisemitism and the Black Plague, which are historically linked. Jews in those times were often blamed for the Plague, and pogroms were frequent. There’s a fantasy element to the Black Mist as well, in that it wasn’t just a disease or an ancient hatred, but more of a sentient evil, looking for cracks to work its way into.
In addition to the fantastic Jewish rep, there was a queer aspect to the story. The way that Jewish, female, and queer identities were introduced and addressed were intriguing, and I loved that representation, even though my heart broke for the queer characters and what their lives were like in those times. Life is always hard when you live outside of the majority culture, and it was even more difficult in those times.
While this story wasn’t an easy read, it was a good one. This story told the poignant, difficult, bittersweet, and often painful history of my people. Life back then was very different, and this book illustrated a lot of that. The content warnings were a normal part of life for people living in the 15th century, which is when this book was set.
I loved so many aspects of this story, but I did feel like there were a couple of loose ends. I would have liked to see a little more development of some of the characters, and it felt like the parents completely faded after moving to their new town. The ending felt a little rushed, but it left me with a beautiful sense of fulfillment after the very last page. And after reading the author’s note, I was blown away by the intense amount of research and the personal connection that the author had to the story itself.
People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.
Gasp Factor: 11