book review: the sisters of the winter wood by rena rossner

The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner
Redhook, 464 pp.
Published September 25, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free finished copy of this title from the publisher for review purposes. This did not inform or influence my opinion in any way.

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.

You'll LOVE it wish you could read Goblin Market in prose form.

Essentially a re-telling of Christina Rossetti's poem, Goblin Market, Rossner's novel never strays very far from its inspiration. By transforming poetry into prose she adds embellishment and development not present in the original work, but the underlying structure remains. Two sisters view fruit-selling strangers with varying degrees of wariness and excitement, in the end working together to defeat a foe. The dark intrigue that usually accompanies goblins is on full display, giving the tale an ominous edge even in its more romantic moments. Those who love Rossetti's poem and these nefarious creatures should find themselves enchanted by this new, expanded version of the fable.

You'll LIKE it enjoy Eastern European-set fantasy.

Set in a Jewish community in Dubossary (a Moldovan village near the border with Ukraine), Rossner's novel adds a depth of culture, history, and tradition that Goblin Market didn't concern itself with. The original lesson regarding the importance of sisterly love grows into a more complicated moral on family and community. Naomi Novik and Katherine Arden have both found success in Eastern European/Russian-set fairy tales; those who enjoyed Spinning Silver and The Bear and the Nightingale might find enough similarities in atmosphere here to enjoy.

You MAY NOT LIKE it're expecting the unexpected.

The evocative setting and inspiration aren't quite enough to overcome the tepid pacing and generally bland plot, though. Liba suffers quite a lot of hand-wringing over her younger sister, but the narrative focus struggles to disengage from the romantic elements at play for both girls. Rather than a fable about strong women dictating their place in society, The Sisters of the Winter Wood can't resist turning its heroines into damsels and giving them tidy, Disney-fied fates. It's disappointing that Rossner can't ultimately capitalize on the uniquely dark and feminist undertones ripe for exploration in Goblin Market. While she's produced a perfectly serviceable fantasy, the reliance on male saviors and a familiar denouement keep this novel from truly soaring.


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