Sometimes, when a book arrives for review and the publicist has done an extra-special job of gussying it up to make it look inviting (in this case, a pretty neat feathery bookmark and some carefully cut out animals hidden between the pages that I’m still pulling out from the back of my couch), it’s a massive warning sign that the book could very well be a stinker and the PR is desperately trying to get on our good side. But in the case of Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, the embellishments were actually cool little additions to an enjoyable, well put together story.
The titular sisters are Liba and Laya, two very different young women who are left at home by their parents while Mami and Tati go off to visit the girls’ dying grandfather. On paper that’s probably not such a great idea because they live in the woods surrounded by a pretty foreboding forest, but Liba and Laya are more than capable of looking after themselves. Bear-like Liba takes after their father whereas Laya has more in common with their graceful swan-like mother, but Liba knows a secret she won’t dare to even share with her sibling - that their father really can transform into a bear and their mother can also transform into a swan. It is a magical heritage the sisters never knew existed, a proof that the ancient fairy tales are true, but when Laya suddenly becomes drawn towards a mysterious troupe of men who arrive in the village - completely forgetting their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers - the two sisters discover the dangers of the adult world, and Liba must come to terms with the beast lying dormant inside her if they are going to save themselves and their people from the dangers lurking within the trees.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is essentially a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem Goblin Market except heavily imbued with Russian history, peasant folklore and Jewish culture and mythology, and with important things to say about anti-semitism and the “coming of age” need to find acceptance within ourselves. In many ways it is reminiscent of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, although it is more heavily stylised than that book and takes far longer to get moving. In fact, there are ingredients to The Sisters of the Winter Wood that some readers might find frustrating (there are a lot of Hebrew, Yiddish and Ukrainian words and phrases in this story so prepare to spend a lot of time switching between the text and the glossary at the back of the book) and the fact that all of Laya’s chapters are written as poetry feels overly arty and can become wearing. But, on the plus side, there’s a tremendous atmosphere to Rossner’s writing and there are ingredients in this story that are occasionally magical. If you’re into your YA fairytales, this is well worth taking a look at.
THE SISTERS OF THE WINTER WOOD / AUTHOR: RENA ROSSNER / PUBLISHER: ORBIT / RELEASE DATE: 27TH SEPTEMBER 2018