The Leib family lives in exile, because their parents married for love. Their mother’s Christian family cast her out. Their father’s Jewish family banished him. Ever since they married, the Leibs have lived in Dubossary (Dubăsari), in relative peace and quiet—but all the secrets have caused a lot of tension. The elder Leibs have a chance to be reconciled to the Jewish side of their family at the beginning of The Sisters of the Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner, but it means leaving young Liba and Laya behind. The potential reconciliation couldn’t come at a worse time. Not only is anti-Semitism on the rise, but the girls are almost ready to confront the two families’ biggest secrets.
Liba is the sensible older sister. She studies Torah with her father. She lives within the confines of Hasidic Jewish life. Laya, on the other hand, longs for freedom and travel. When their parents take to the road, the girls begin a battle of wills. Liba tries to enforce their parents’ rules while Laya takes every opportunity to try things that were previously forbidden. Neither girl knows that their mother finally revealed the blended family’s secret: that Liba will be able to turn into a bear like their father and that Laya will be able to transform into a swan like their mother.
On top of the sisters’ squabbling over keeping the family’s Jewish rules and their blossoming magical abilities, they also have to contend with the arrival of the curiously enticing Hovlin brothers, who peddle addictive fruit and more. And then Rossner weaves in some of the history of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. It’s a lot to keep track of and, unfortunately, I think the characterization and the dialogue suffer. Where Liba is more fully realized, Laya reads very one note for most of the book. The note is willfullness. Curiously, Rossner wrote the chapters in Laya’s perspective like poetry, with very short lines that I really don’t know what to do with. Because so many of the characters are on the stubbornness spectrum, there are a lot of arguments between two or more characters who refuse to compromise. There’s a lot of shouting.
I think I would have enjoyed The Sisters of the Winter Wood a lot more if it had contained one less thing. If there had been fewer plot threads, Rossner would have more room for characterization and nuance. The book would have been less like so many other young adult novels featuring characters who are all convinced that they are right and everyone else is wrong and no one has an ounce of ability to compromise. I can just picture them standing somewhere, feet planted and arms crossed, just bellowing at each other until someone backs down. All that said, I enjoyed Rossner’s world building. I love the idea of Jewish bears running around Moldova and Ukrainian swans flying overhead.
Readers who like historical fantasy might enjoy this, if they are willing to overlook this book’s flaws.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 25 September 2018.