Wednesday, February 16, 2022

TBR Challenge: Rena Rossner - The Sisters of the Winter Wood

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.

Comment: Time for another TBR Challenge post! For February, the theme is fairy tale, which does allow for many interpretations. I picked a book which is based on fairy tales and reads like one. Added to it, the inspiration comes from Russian or Ukrainian and Jewish tradition, which aren't subjects I usually tend to look for, so I was curious about what I could learn.

In this story we meet sisters Liba and Laya, who live in an Ukrainian village more or less near the border with Moldova. They live in a Jewish community with their parents and although there are problems from time to time, they have had a pretty normal life. Things change when sudden news on their father's family warn the family their grandfather is dying. The parents decide to leave but the girls will stay behind, for the travel might not be safe. Right before they do, both girls learn a secret about their parents and what it will mean for themselves. While this is scary and the time isn't the best to be unaware of what could happen, the girls stay behind anyway. Their worries might not be bigger than the expected but everything changes when a group of strangers comes to the village and Laya seems to easily fall into their spell...

First of all, the cover is gorgeous. I got the paperback edition and the black and gold tones are classic for a reason and that immediately made me imagine whimsical and intricate little details. At the end of the book, the author also included some glossary for Ukrainian and Yiddish terms, as well as some sayings. I think it was nice but I admit I struggled to imagine the sounds in my head. There are also notes on why she decided to write this book, on her own family being a big inspiration for the Jewish content. I found all these things to be interesting additions.

The plot is quite simple and reminded me of better known fairy tales from European tradition, which often seem quite similar for all countries, even if with some differences and adaptations. Two sisters who can change into an animal form have to protect themselves and the village from harm, but how does the "enemy" influence some people so easily... all these secrets and suggestions as things move along felt captivating and while I wanted to guess what was going on, some details were still surprising when explained. Most of the time, the story was engrossing.

However, this didn't fully work out for me for a simple reason: there's a lot of talk which seemed to be centered in the same things, a lot of repetitive situations and conversations and I imagine this was to build up the sense of worry and forbearing but it turned out to be slightly unappealing for it seemed to go nowhere. 

Another detail which I found incredibly unrealistic was how long it took for the sisters to talk about they had learned right before their parents left. I know the idea was maintain this sense of hazardous indecision but it annoyed me a lot because their relationship was or of close sisters or of adversaries and while teenagers everywhere certainly are inconstant sometimes, I was in doubt on where exactly the author wanted to put these two: as sisters who love each other and would die to protect the other or as obvious adversaries in how to deal with bad influence coming their way.

I also think there were too many things left unsaid, unexplained. I get it that if one thinks of fairy tales some issues just don't have to be solved or explained properly: part of the fun and the mystery is to keep things in the air, enticing. At the same time, though, I expected some logic to help the sisters understand things more quickly. I felt there was too much time spent dealing with symptoms and not enough understanding them, which, of course, led to some misunderstandings and wrong moves and this only delayed the action and the resolution of everything.

In the end, I felt we weren't given enough closure on what happened, on all the weird and "magical" aspects the sisters dove into when the parents left. There are too many things unsolved and I don't think this was in that sense of  being an ambiguous end so "imagine whatever", but more in the "no idea what to say, so no explanation necessary". It's a pity because I liked the scenes described, I liked the writing as a whole and the evocative style the author had. The execution, however...

I think the focus was a bit too much on the girl's age and what it meant. I kind of wish they had been older, so that the secondary elements, such as the difficulties the villages had, the danger of massacres going around them, the whole family abilities and what it meant in terms of relationships would have had more importance. Even the villains, when we discover whys and hows felt under done. Therefore, this was OK and had interesting elements, but didn't win me over completely.
Grade: 7/10


  1. I always think that fantasy-ish books get the best covers, so gorgeous.
    Worldbuilding is so important and when you have fantasy one, it definitely needs to be structured and explained out, I often find my big complaint is not taking the care with that aspect of craft on those genre books. It does end up ruining the execution and then my enjoyment.

    1. Hi! Yes, true, better structure does help to fill in the gaps if something isn't said in an obvious manner. Thank you for commenting!

  2. Oh, I hate it when a book leaves us with that feeling; it's different where there's an overarching plotline for a series,where each book solves part of a problem and/or sets up the next one. But when it's a stand alone story, it should ideally answer all the questions it poses.

    1. Hello!
      Yes, precisely that; I wish there had been something more obvious to complement the things we simply deduce from what the characters do/say.
      Thank you for commenting!