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. 

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

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale Retelling, Folklore, Magic Realism

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel and the series. You have been warned.

            “You are a fool, man of God,” he said. You never understood.”

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

            “That I do keep faith, in my own fashion,” said the Bear.

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

            The Winter of the Witchis the third and final book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy.What started with The Bear and the Nightingale—and yes, readers need to read that book and the second book, The Girl in the Tower,in order to know what is going on in the third book—ends with this beautiful end to a beautiful trilogy. This historical fiction fantasy starts where the second book ended, with Moscow recovering from both a fire and the actions of a wicked magician. Once again, Vasilisa Petrovna’s actions have caught up with her, and she barely escapes with her life. Then, she must come up with a plan to unite ALL of Russia—humans and chyerti—to fight against the invading Tatars, and to find balance between two belief systems—Christianity and Paganism.

            The characters are those we were introduced to from the previous books: Vasya, Sasha (her brother), Olga (her sister), Marya (her niece), Solovey (her stallion), Dmitrii Ivanovich (the Grand Prince), Morozko (the frost-demon), Medved (the chaos-spirit), Konstantin Nikonovich (the charlatan priest), and Varvara (the Head servant). New characters are introduced and mentioned as well. Together, all of the characters are active in Arden’s story from the roles they play to the answers they provide to the readers’—and characters’—concerns and questions. Each character is well developed and motivated to accomplish their goals. The conviction in the protagonist, the antagonist(s), and the other characters remind the reader(s) that more scenarios are happening than the characters and we are aware of.

            The plot, as I mentioned earlier, is both a continuation of the events in the previous book, and a continuation of Vasya’s growth into an adult. Christianity is now the dominant religion in Russia with the amount of people who keep the older traditions decreasing, the Tatars continue their campaign to take over Russia, ancient feuds continue to play on, and Vasya is a step closer to coming into her own and accepting her destiny. These subplots are part of the main plot—Russia is changing, but not all things fade away with those changes—and they cannot wait to be dealt with. Each change, along with its dilemma, is addressed again and again until the story’s end. It should be mentioned that each conflict does not get resolved and that is due to the reality found within the story. Conflict—from a minor issue to total chaos—never goes away. The three conflicts found within the plot are resolved, so that story ends, but the lives of the characters leaves for an ambiguous continuation and hope for both the surviving characters, and for the reader(s). 

            The narrative switches between the points-of-view of several characters: Vasya, Sasha, Olga, Konstantin Nikonovich, the Bear, Varvara, etc. Just like in other stories with multiple POVs, readers learn everything that is happening everywhere concurrently. The aftermath of Vasya’s actions affect her throughout the story; Sasha and Olga come to terms with their family’s history, gifts, and future; Konstantin Nikonovich achieves his goals with a bittersweet feeling to his conscience; and, the Bear, the Winter King, and Varvara have their roles to play in the war. Then, there is the other war that’s coming for all denizens of Russia. If it’s not one problem, then it is another problem. Remember, the first war for power happened in The Girl in the Tower,which was a short time ago within the narrative. Arden presents the conflicts and then shows how all of her characters deal with them within the story. Since the narrative is given from multiple viewpoints without the other characters knowing what is happening to other characters, readers know that each narrative is reliable and realistic. The resolution does not give the characters enough knowledge of what happened to the other characters as well, and that provides a believable ending. 

            The style of writing the author uses in this book is the same as it was in the previous books in the series. Magic realism is a genre of writing that is often used alongside the historical fiction genre. The difference is that folklore drives the narrative of a magic realism story. Arden’s style follows this method of writing. The aspect that makes Arden’s trilogy standout is the knowledge of the lore the denizens in the story have, because the lore remains as the world changes. Devout Christians are able to see the chyerti, and there are people who practice both “faiths.” One of the best things about the author’s trilogy is the way she reminds readers that old magic and ancient tales will always remain with the people (hence, the term “folklore”). Everyone knows them, some are aware of them, and few have the ability to use the deeper magic. Folklore is part of a culture, and Arden incorporated the importance of a country unifying, not just for its survival, but also for its way of life through their culture. The author did a beautiful job expressing this within her writing. 

            The appeal surrounding this novel is interesting. I’ve started reading the Winternight Trilogy from the release of The Bear and the Nightingalein 2017 and I knew Katherine Arden was one of my new favorite authors. I received an ARC of The Winter of the Witch, and while I was reading and gushing through it, I found that other readers picked up the first book out of curiosity and enjoyed it, too! If The Bear and the Nightingalewas the first book that introduced us to Katherine Arden, then The Winter of the Witchis the book that cements her as one of the best speculative fiction authors in this era of publication. Katherine Arden takes folklore and reshapes it into a new story to be read and enjoyed the same way Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor and Naomi Novik have done within their books. The Winternight Trilogyproves that the speculative fiction canon has room for authors who write across multiple elements within the genre like Katherine Arden.  

            I am proud to say that I’ve read Katherine Arden’s books since the publication of her first novel, and I’ve enjoyed them all! Now, while this review is about the last book in the trilogy, I still have to mention all of the books in the trilogy. There are many trilogies in the speculative fiction genre; and, when it comes to the trilogies I’ve read from that genre, the Winternight Trilogyleaves me with the same level of satisfaction as His Dark Materials(by Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (by N.K. Jemisin) trilogies. Anyone who knows about how I feel about those trilogies, know that’s a big deal! Reading Vasya’s journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood was an absolute joy and I’m glad Katherine Arden shared her story with us. I recommend this novel, and the series, to all readers of the speculative fiction genre. None of you will be disappointed.

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!