You might have seen over on Twitter that I’ve been making an effort to get up-to-date with my shamefully overdue NetGalley shelves – please do come and join me with the hashtag #NonStopNetGalley if you could also do with a push to get that shelf cleared! So for the next few days, there will most likely be a couple of posts a day, so I can get my reviews done in a timely fashion…
Anyway, today is the turn of The Sisters of the Winter Wood – a historical fairy-tale that I’d been wanting to read for ages!
Book: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided free of charge through NetGalley for fair review. All opinions my own.
Release date: 25th September 2018. Amazon link here (affiliate).
I’ve always loved Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, so when I saw there was going to be a YA fantasy inspired by it, I was really excited! I did enjoy the elements of this book that drew on Rossetti’s goblin fruit, but I felt that there was just a little bit too much going on for that part of the story to really shine. This is, in a way, three books in one: you have the story of the goblins coming to town to steal the youths away; you have the historical story of the anti-Semitic pogroms in the Ukraine in 1903; and there’s also the Russian folklore element of the bear-people and the swan-people. While I think either of the folkloric parts could have worked well with the historical context, to have both together ended up pulling the story in too many different directions for me. As it happens, I found the bear/swan parts too much on top of the rest of the story.
The book is told in an unusual style, with alternating chapters from the perspective of two sisters – but Liba writes in prose, and Laya writes in blank verse. I really liked this (though I did have to double check, the first time I came across a Laya chapter, that this wasn’t some sort of formatting error!). It helps to capture the essence of the two sisters – Liba is traditional, focused on exploring the world in a practical way, while Laya is a free spirit whose thoughts are wilder and less contained. This did mean, though, that I didn’t connect with Laya very much, as you spend a lot more time with Liba and get to see a lot more of her world. Laya’s poetic style is great for the dreamy state in which she finds herself, and works beautifully for the ambiguous reality of the goblin world, but isn’t ideal for character-building. She’s something of a mystery to me.
It’s really great to see a fantasy story incorporate so much real-world history and culture – I know very little about this period, and I found the insights into the lives of the Jewish characters in the book very interesting. Setting this book in a historical context makes the story that much darker and deeper. There are some excellent #ownvoices reviews on Goodreads exploring the Jewish representation – I can’t speak to how accurate it is, but I found it very easy to follow, without being patronising.
It is a very YA story. There’s a lot of kissing, and the two sisters are extremely naive. The book focuses primarily on their love lives and their struggles with their own identity (as women, as Jews, as swan or bear people) – I would perhaps have liked a little more breadth to the tale. And perhaps, a little more nuance to the folkloric elements of the tale – I’m not sure that the sexual implications of the goblin market needed to be made quite so explicit – but on the whole, this is an enjoyable dark historical fantasy. Four out of five cats from me.