Book Review

The Sisters Of The Winter Wood

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

  • Author: Rena Rossner
  • Genre: YA Fantasy
  • Publication Date: September 25, 2018
  • Publisher: Hachette Audio

CONTENT WARNING: infidelity, violence, death, antisemitism, mention of rape

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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.

After reading (and loving) The Light of the Midnight Stars, I wanted to check out Rena Rossner’s debut. And I regret nothing! I took the audiobook out from my library, and Ana Clements did a great job as narrator. There are a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew terms in the story, and she was able to navigate them beautifully, switching between different voices for Liba and Laya and the males in the story as well.

From what I understand, the audiobook differs from the printed copies in that Laya’s chapters are written in poetry, while Liba’s are in prose, although it isn’t obvious in the audiobook version. There is a clear difference in voice and tone between the two characters, which made it easy to figure out who was speaking. 

The book mixes elements of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, Eastern European history, and Jewish faith to create an incredibly engrossing story that I couldn’t stop listening to. Liba sees something she wasn’t supposed to see one night — her parents can change forms. And before she can process this information, her parents receive a message that her grandfather is dying and they have to go out of town to see him. But it isn’t safe, and Liba is told to stay and take care of her sister until they return. 

Liba is the older, responsible, down to earth sister who always follows what she is told to do. I liked her character, and could understand her struggle. She was having a hard time with wanting to do the right thing, learning to accept herself, and struggling with the changes that she was experiencing on her own as well. Because in addition to everything she was going through, she was also beginning her own transformation, both emotionally and physically. 

Laya is the younger, flighty sister, prone to acting on her emotions and letting her heart lead her. Naturally, this got her in trouble, and she was such a frustrating character for me. There were so many times that I just wanted to reach out and shake some sense into her. 

The relationship between the sisters was portrayed so well. There can be a strange dynamic between sisters; where you would do anything for each other, but at the same time, know exactly what buttons to push to hurt the other in the most painful ways. And that is what had happened throughout this story. Liba only wanted to help her sister, but in her efforts to do so, she was somewhat controlling and failed to listen to what Laya wanted. And Laya wasn’t exactly a picnic — what she wanted wasn’t healthy or safe, and she wasn’t afraid of consequences or to lash out with a low blow to push Liba away. 

Romance played heavily into this story, which I wasn’t really expecting. It was bittersweet, as so much was at those times. I loved the emphasis on the inner strength and community of Jewish life, and the way that Liba said that Jews excel at survival. I found it especially poignant and appropriate given the current circumstances. In the author’s note, I didn’t realize that the story was inspired by actual events. 

I loved the story, even though Laya was probably my least favorite character in the story. While there is mention of the tension and horror that Jewish people faced in those times, it wasn’t dwelled upon, and I think that this is because this was just a fact of life for Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pogroms and antisemitism were routine, and people just went on with their lives as best they could. Overall, this book was great and I truly did enjoy the story. 

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