Why You Need to Read: “The Sisters of the Winter Wood”

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

By: Rena Rossner

Published: September 25, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Magic Realism, Folklore, Historical Fiction

            “…Everything makes sense suddenly, and yet nothing makes sense at all.

            There have always been rumors about the Kodari forest and the hidden things within it.

            Now, I know we are a part of that unseen world,” (7, Liba). 

            2018 was a year in which books written by “established” authors and by debut authors were published and read by both readers and critics alike. So many good books were released in 2018 that there were a few that got lost within the pile. Rena Rossner’s debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, was one of those novels. This standalone novel has been compared to and enjoyed by fans of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy; and, it’s easy to see why. The story is a blend of history, culture, and magic with wonder about the workings of the “other.” 

            Liba and Laya are sisters who are as different as night and day. Liba is stout and dark-haired, and Laya is willowy and light-haired; each sister resembles each parent (in more ways than one). And, like most siblings, Liba and Laya are jealous of each other. They both want what the other has and are oblivious to what they already possess. Liba wishes she was as beautiful as Laya, and Laya wishes she could fit in amongst the (Jewish) community like Liba. These wants and personalities define the sisters. And, when their parents leave them home alone in order to address a family emergency, the sisters are able to grow into themselves and obtain respect for each other. Throughout this coming-of-age story, both Liba and Laya realize what their parents were trying to protect them from—their heritage and its dangers. It’s only after coming to terms with their heritage that the sisters are able to accept themselves and each other for who and what they are. 

            The plot seems simple—almost like a faerie tale—but, it’s not because faerie tales are not simply stories, they’re cautionary tales complied with cultural beliefs. For the first time, Liba and Laya are left home alone. Between their heritage and the disappearances of their neighbors and their friends, the sisters are warned “to be wary of strangers.” Of course, both sisters do the opposite: Liba has encounters with men who claim they “know” her father, and Laya becomes friendly with 7 brothers who arrive in town to sell fruit at the market. At the same time, the sisters learn of their magical heritage and try to cope with the knowledge and the meaning of it. They soon realize that they have to make choices that benefit them as individuals before deciding their place in the world with, or without, their family. The subplot in this novel is the growing tension between the Christians and the Jews, which is based on the tragic events in Moldova in 1903. After two young Christians were found dead under mysterious circumstances, the nearby Jewish community were left with the blame and the potential pogrom against them. The subplot mirrors the plot in that while Liba and Laya are concerned with how everyone else will see them. Their microcosm Jewish community is on edge on what could happen to them all if the macrocosm Christian community continues to blame them for the deaths and the disappearances. The elements of the faerie tales work their way into the plot and the subplot reminding readers that faerie tales are not just “stories,” and we should heed them. 

            The narrative within The Sisters of the Winter Wood are told from the points-of-view of both Liba and Laya. The narrative is told in real-time and whatever is happening within the setting of the story, either Liba or Laya, or both are witnessing and experiencing these events, which makes them reliable narrators. The narrative is easy to follow because the story focuses on the events as well as the maturation of the sisters. Keep in mind that this is a bildungsroman story and we’re reminded, constantly, that our protagonists are adolescent girls.  

            Rena Rossner incorporates her story of magic realism and folklore within her style of writing. She writes in two styles in order to reflect the differences between Liba and Laya, and the way they see their world compare to everyone else. Liba’s P.O.V. chapters are told in prose and lets the reader(s) know of what is happening within the community. Laya’s P.O.V. chapters are in poetic verse and presents the reader(s) with the growing tension within her family, within the community, and amongst the magical elements that are hidden to all the other denizens. The fable styled morals can be found within the theme (the fear of persecution for being the “minority”), the mood (beware of strangers), and the tone (beware of your neighbors) in this folklore inspired story. The author’s styles not only illustrate how the sisters see the world, but also deliver the experiences both sisters have throughout the story. Liba spends more time interacting with other people and Laya spends a lot of time interacting with the other. Both styles standout, but together they give a complete story of all of the happenings within the novel.

            The appeal surrounding the novel have been well-deserved. Both the author and the novel have been nominated for literary awards, including the 2019 Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award. Fans—readers and critics alike—note the similarities between Rena Rossner and Katherine Arden. The historical and cultural elements will draw comparison to both Nnedi Okorafor and Jordanna Max Brodsky as well. While this is a standalone novel, it’s a debut that will make readers wanting more from the author. 

            The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a beautiful story told with two styles of storytelling about two sisters adapting to adulthood. Fans of magic realism, historical fiction, and folklore will appreciate the combination of the genres and fall in love with the characters. It will leave you wondering whether or not your family is as magical as Liba and Laya’s. 

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Why You Need to Read: “Nevernight”

The Nevernight Chronicle: Book One: Nevernight

By: Jay Kristoff

Published: August 9, 2016

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark

            “A girl some called. Pale Daughter. Or Kingmaker. Or Crow. But most often, nothing at all. A killer of killers, whose tally of endings only the goddess and I truly know. And was she famous or infamous for it at the end? All this death? I confess I could never see the difference. But then, I’ve never seen things the way you have.” (Caveat Emptor).

            This novel, and trilogy, begins with the end and its aftermath: an empire is in ruins and its society has been left in shambles by a teenaged assassin, who killed more people than can be recorded. We are told this by the narrator who decides to record her story about her early life, the path that led her to becoming an assassin, and her death. Jay Kristoff introduces his readers to Mia Corvere, “a killer of killers.”

            Mia Corvere is the protagonist and readers are introduced to her as she is killing a man. We learn two things about her immediately after. One, the murder is part of her initiation into the Red Church—a league of lethal assassins—and the institution that trains them. Two, Mia is the daughter of Justicus Darius Corvere—one of the four leaders who led a failed rebellion against The Republic of Itreya—who was publicly executed when she was 10 years-old. The aftermath led to her mother—Dona Corvere, Alinne—and her infant brother—Jonnen—being arrested and imprisoned, too. Mia is taken away to be drowned in the river; obviously, she escapes and is raised by Mercurio, a retired assassin, who trains Mis in the basics of killing so that she can avenge her family. She is about 16 years-old when she travels to the Red Church for training. Accompanying Mia is her shadow daemon—in the shape of a cat—Mister Kindly. Once at the Red Church, Mia meets her classmates: Tric, Ashlinn and Osrik Järnheim, Hush, Jessamine Gratianus and Diamo. All of them are also rivals for one of the four spots for the title, “Blade,” an assassin for the Red Church. This is done by impressing one of the Shahiids—Solis, Spiderkiller, Mouser and Aalea—as well as Drusilla, the Revered Mother, and Cassius, the Lord of Blades (and a Darkin—one who controls the darkness with their shadow daemon—like Mia). Throughout her training, Mia never forgets her goal—avenging her family—but, Mia begins to question the nature of an assassin all while learning about her abilities as a Darkin and solving the mystery of who is killing the residents of the Red Church. 

            The plot of Nevernight is about Mia’s training to become an assassin and what she endures to make it through the initiation. At the same time, we learn about Mia’s past, which led her to both Mercurio and the Red Church. Both plots are crucial because we learn about Mia through this plot and character development. Readers learn that Mia doesn’t miss the life of being a nobleman’s daughter, she misses her parents and her brother. The subplot is the killer who is attacking the apprentices within the Red Church. While it is not surprising for a league of assassins to have enemies, it is surprising that the perpetrator(s) is attacking the initiates inside the Red Church, and not even those in charge can the perpetrator’s identity. This subplot is essential because it presents Mia with a realistic view of what being a member of the Red Church entails. 

            The narrative in Nevernight is one of the most creative ones I’ve come across in a while. The chronicles are written in the past tense because Mia is dead; however, this recording switches between the “present”—as we’re reading it—and, Mia’s “past”—everything that occurred before Mia arrived at the Red Church. This 3rd limited point-of-view lets readers know how Mia, and those closest to her, are feeling and thinking in the story. In addition, much of the world-building is mentioned in the footnotes, which is both informative and hilarious, so that readers have a better understanding of the world the author is creating. And yes, it’s based on Ancient Rome. While it becomes obvious in the beginning chapters as to who is writing Mia’s story, it is unclear how the Chronicler is able to recall all of these moments of Mia’s life. That being said, we are left to believe that this narrator is a reliable one. 

            Jay Kristoff’s style is as creative as his choice of narration. Mia’s past experiences are written in italics, which makes it easy for readers to distinguish between Mia’s “past” and “present.” Mia’s daemon, Mister Kindly’s—who talks to her and to the other characters (when he chooses to)—dialogue is written in lowercase italics. This is brilliant because the author found a creative way to distinguish the dialogue between two species (?). The information provided within the “footnotes” present the truth surrounding society, especially the culture and the history—both brutal and carnal. The “footnotes” provide satire of the society. Both the mood and the tone are relatable and juxtapose to each other. The mood tells readers of the realities within this fictional story—cruel, harsh and unforgiving. Mia’s father is executed publicly for organizing a failed rebellion, her mother and her brother are imprisoned, and she escaped her execution and was raised by a former assassin who trains her as his apprentice. The tone tells us that one’s path towards revenge usually leaves that individual (and many others) dead. 

            I would describe the appeal surrounding Nevernight as a hidden jewel. It is popular in the grimdark subgenre, and it’s gaining more recognition within the rest of the speculative fiction community. In other words, more and more people are reading this novel. Historical fiction readers will appreciate Kristoff’s society which is based on historical and cultural research. Godsgrave—the 2nd book in The Nevernight Chronicle—was released in 2017 and is an amazing follow-up to Nevernight (review coming soon). And, Darkdawn, the 3rdand final book in the trilogy, will be released in September 2019. 

            Nevernight is a great novel for those who are curious about the grimdark subgenre. Besides that the characters, the plot, the subplots and the style will keep readers interested from the Caveat Emptor (opening chapter). The harsh reality told within the pages reminds us that good and bad are NOT concepts, but manifestations within each individual; everyone is capable of both, but what drives them to perform acts of one or both? This is the question readers are forced to ask themselves more than once. Nevernight is both an enjoyable and a psychological read that I’ll re-read over and over again!

My rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!

Why You Need to Read: “Witchmark”

The Kingston Cycle: Book One: Witchmark

By: C.L. Polk

Published: June 19, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, Mystery, Gaslamp, Military Fantasy

            “She gave no outward sign of her effort, but her Secondary’s knees sagged as she took as much of his strength as she pleased. I shuddered. That would have been me, if I hadn’t escaped. Nothing but a Storm-Singer’s minion, my own gifts dismissed as useless,” (Chapter Two).

            2018 was an immense year for the speculative fiction community. Several novels novellas, short stories, graphic novels, etc. were released, read, and enjoyed by fans and critics alike. In fact, so many works of the genre were released that it was difficult to keep up with all of the new releases. Luckily, recommendations and award nominations forces readers to catch up. That being said, I’m glad I got to read and to rate C.L. Polk’s Witchmark. This novel is one of many that I didn’t get to read when it was released in 2018.

            Dr. Miles Singer—the protagonist—is a psychiatrist and a veteran of the war that just ended between Aeland and Laneer. He is making his rounds when a man stumbles into the hospital carrying a man who claims he’s been poisoned. The dying man—Nick Elliot—calls Dr. Singer, “Starred One” and “Sir Christopher,” then transfers his power to Miles before dying. All of this happens in front of the man who brought Nick Elliot into the hospital—Tristan Hunter. Dr. Singer is worried that his cover is blown and his true identity—Sir Christopher Miles Hensley—is known to both strangers, one of whom is now dead. Dr. Singer and Tristan Hunter must explore the societal world of Aeland in order to solve the mystery of Nick Elliot’s death and what’s causing the hallucinations in the veterans at the hospital. It is revealed that Dr. Miles Singer is from a powerful family of magicians; except, he didn’t inherit the powers of a “mage.” Instead, Miles is a “witch”; he has a lesser power and it is believed, even by him, that all he’s good for is to be a “Secondary,” or an enslaved magical source for mages. Miles—knowing it was either enslavement, or commitment to a witches’ asylum—ran away from home and joined the army, where he used his healing power to become a doctor. Nick Elliot’s death reveals that Miles’ life is in jeopardy. Tristan Hunter is an Amaranthine, a celestial being with more power than any witch or mage. He was sent by his Royal Court to solve a mystery that is tied to Nick Elliot’s murder. During this investigation, Miles is recognized by his younger sister, Grace, who is both a mage and the heir to their family’s legacy, and Miles’ “Superior.” Grace needs Miles’ help to secure an election so that she can make reforms for Secondaries like him. Of the three characters, it is Grace who develops the most and it’s because of all of the revelations uncovered by the trio. This unraveling of political conspiracies presents the corruption and the fear that led to Miles fleeing his previous life. Yet, it is more than Miles, Tristan, and Grace knew about beforehand. 

            The plot involves a mystery within this fantasy story. Nick Elliot knew he was dying, and he sought out Dr. Miles Singer. In his last moments Nick Elliot says, “They needed the souls,” and transfers his power and his soul to Miles. Tristan Hunter is from another realm and he’s trying to solve the mystery of these lost souls. Miles, in keeping with appearances, attends a dinner in which he is reacquainted with his sister, Grace, who thought he was dead. Miles now has to solve a mystery, stay away from his family to avoid bondage, and make sure that none of his patients become mass murderers due to their PTSD. Meanwhile, sparks fly between Miles and Tristan, which is an issue. Not because of the homosexuality—the magic world is open to all forms of sexuality—but because relationships between mages and witches, and Amaranthines are taboo. The romance is as beautiful as it is described by the author and is appropriate for an alternative Edwardian English society. Even though this is a fantasy, the mystery is central to the plot of the novel. In other words, Witchmark is a mystery novel set in a fantasy world. Once this is comprehended by the reader(s), then the plot begins to make more sense and continues at an appropriate pace. Besides the romance, the societal world of Aeland is the subplot of this novel. The author wants the reader to know that the magic world is just as power hungry, corrupt, and prejudice as the human world. And, similar to other subplots in other novels, this subplot will not be resolved by this novel’s end but will become ubiquitous to everyone living in those societies. The denizens have to decide whether or not it should be resolved. 

            The narrative follows Miles’ P.O.V. Throughout the novel, Miles’ feelings and emotions about his past, his family his career, his choices, and his love for Tristan presents the narrative to be stream-of-consciousness. All of Miles’ thoughts, fears, and knowledge is presented to the reader. It is through him that the readers learn about the setting, the magic world and its rules, and the multiple conflicts. Miles being a victim of his family’s and society’s abuse make him both a sympathetic and a reliable narrator. The fact that Miles uncovers more of what has been happening in secret as he unravels Nick Elliot’s murder and the horrors that lead up to it allows the readers to have a mirrored reaction to Miles’. As long as readers remember that the novel is both fantasy and mystery, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style of writing C.L. Polk uses makes her debut novel captivating. First, incorporating PTSD in the veterans of the war provides realism to the readers. Miles being a psychiatrist during an era in which both the medical community and public society chastised such notions surrounding mental health and war veterans is commendable. Next, magic systems and hierarchy are part of both the plot and the mystery in this story. Secondaries being seen as a source for magic for mages provides a different outlook on magic and its societal norms. Polk’s tone of this “magic system” reflects English history and how they always felt they had to conquer another group of people in order to feel powerful. The mood within the novel illustrate why Miles—and other Secondaries—fled their homes. This magic world is as corrupt and stringent as ours, but with harsher abuses of power. Last, Polk’s writing is as much of a political statement as it is an immersive fantasy story. And, magical gifts are as essential as the witch, or the mage who wields it.

            The appeal surrounding Witchmark is well-deserved. Polk does an amazing job of combining history, psychology, mystery and romance into this all-around fantasy novel. It’s been nominated for several literary awards including the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2019 Lambda Literary, or Lammy, Award for Best LGBTQ SF/F/Horror (Book). This lets speculative fiction fans know that this book should be read. The follow-up to Witchmark, Stormsong, will pick up where the last novel left off. This will let readers—who are interested—know whether or not the author will build-up on her world. I hope she does because it will let us know what happens next. Witchmark is an amazing addition to the literary canon! 

            C.L. Polk’s debut novel is a multi-genre text that can be read and enjoyed by readers, and not just fantasy fans. Witchmark provides a beautiful romance readers of all sexualities can relate to including the numerous mentions of marriage. The balance between fantasy and mystery presents Witchmark as a unique reading experience to everyone who reads it. The characters, the plot, the narrative, the setting, and the style fit together as you continue reading the story. You will find this book to be as enjoyable as I did, with the reminder that magic is what the user makes of it.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!