Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Though this book is clearly within the realm of young adult fantasy, the author’s afterward lets us know how much of this novel was inspired by both real events the Jews encountered in the early 1900s and fairy tales/mythology. It follows two Jewish sisters growing up in the woods of Dubossary, and its historical origins gives it more of a literary feel than a more traditional fantasy.

For instance, the two sisters in the book, both approaching adulthood, encounter real historical events: the pogroms of Ukraine and Russia happen in the book, as does the anti-Semitic belief that Jews would take and use the blood of non-Jews for their own purposes. The book also uses extensive non-English vocabulary, such as Yiddish (there is a glossary at the end), which helps give it a realistic, historical feel.

Spoilers (sort of—we learn this rather early).

One sister, a bit plumper than the other, darker haired, grittier, is actually a shape-shifting bear. The other, blonde, airy, light, is a swan. Their Mami and Tati have to leave at just the right moment when all hell is breaking loose, which happens to coincide with their daughters having identify crises stemming from their animal sides.

So obviously, the book will require a suspension of disbelief. The events are based loosely on history, but the shapeshifting draws on the mythology and folklore of characters, such as (but not limited at all to) Zeus and the swan. If you are unwilling to read such fantasy, the book may not be for you.

I did enjoy how the two sisters’ writing styles helped to differentiate their personalities. Liba, the bear, speaks to us in long, complicated, earthy paragraphs, whereas her sister speaks in sparse, airy lines of verse to mimic her bird features.

I liked the flavor of the book. Some of the characters spoke as if they were from a different place and time, which I enjoyed. But the main character Liba sometimes seemed to slip into more modern expressions. While I believe this would make a modern YA reader understand her a bit more, it did break my emersion from time to time.

The pace was a bit slow. It took me several dozen pages to immerse myself in the book as I tried to figure out “what it was,” but its uniqueness pulled me in.

I did find myself wanting to finish the book, but the ending was somewhat of a let-down for me. With all these built-up supernatural events and characters, and the disappearance of Liba and Laya’s parents for the majority of the book, I was hoping for more to be revealed at the end. But in the final scenes, all the characters seem to be wrapped up relatively neatly in tidy gift-wrapped bows. I have mentioned in my reviews before that I often prefer darker elements, so this may be a personal preference. It was not exactly a “happily ever after” ending, but given the circumstances, it was close.

As someone with a sister, I did enjoy the bond of sisterly love. I just wished for more of the darkness of the forest, the fruit orchard, and the goblins, which were mentioned, but not enough to quench my thirst. I enjoyed the book more than I found fault, however, and I am glad I read it. Its mythological and folklore elements will stick with me for a long time.

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