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: “Aurora Rising”

The Aurora Cycle: #1: Aurora Rising

By: Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Published: May 7, 2019

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

            “Scarlett Jones (diplomat) introduces the other members of our squad. ‘Tyler Jones, our commander. Zila Madran, science officer. Finian de Seel. Engineer. Catherine Brannock, pilot. And finally, Kaliis Idraban Gilwraeth, combat specialist’.” (Chapter 7, Kal).

            I’ve always been curious to read stories by authors who write multiple genres of literature. Jay Kristoff has written several amazing stories within the sub-genres in both the fantasy and the science fiction genres. Now, he’s back with a new series with Amie Kaufman—who co-wrote The Illuminae Files with Kristoff—to present us with Aurora Rising, the first book in The Aurora Cycle. Jay Kristoff has described the series as a cross between The Breakfast Club and The Guardians of the Galaxy, which piques a reader’s curiosity. 

            This series is different from many other ones in that the story occurs after the characters graduate from school. Aurora Academy is a military school for future space cadets; and, after they graduate, there is a draft in which the top commanders get to pick their crew members for their first set of missions. Tyler Jones, who is The Top of his Class, missed the draft because he decided to explore a restricted section of a dimension—The Fold—used for space travel, stumbled upon a ship that was lost over 200 years ago, and rescued its only survivor—a girl who is the same age as him, technically. The good news is that his twin sister, Scarlett—who is a trained diplomat—and their best friend, Cat Brannock—a pilot nicknamed “Zero”—bail on the draft in order to join his crew. Unfortunately, those who make up the rest of Tyler’s crew—the science officer, the engineer, and the combat specialist—are the ones no one else wanted in their crew: an aloof girl with a trigger finger, a handicapped boy with a motormouth, and an ostracized male whose species is in the midst of a civil war and he’s not fighting in it. Then, there’s Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley—or Auri—the girl who slept in cyro for over 200 years, who awakens with mystical powers and with the top intergalactic police forces deeming her a criminal and are attempting to arrest her. Meet Squad 312! All of these characters have flaws and with them being 17 years-old, they don’t know how to deal with their insecurities, which make all of these characters more relatable and more believable. 

            Both the plot and the narrative are told in the point-of-views of all 7 characters! Multiple P.O.V.s are NOT new for YA books, for it allows for both character development and plot development. For example, Tyler is a leader, who jumps to conclusions surrounding his crew members—with the exception of his sister—and he would rather follow orders than question them. Kal’s species is in the middle of a civil war and he must choose between serving his tenure with Squad 312 or leaving to participate in the war. Then, there’s Auri, who is dealing with being out-of-time and understanding what is happening to her. 

            The author’s style reminds readers of the reality of space travel. While it’s exciting, it’s dangerous and requires training and knowledge in order to endure it. Auri almost dies after spending over 200 years in cryostasis; Kal’s people are decimating each other in a civil war, which broke a treaty, which had dire consequences; and, an intergalactic coverup is the real threat to the universe. Both the mood and the tone match what Kaufman and Kristoff are exploring in this series: space is vast, mysterious, and archaic. Add an element of danger that is as realistic as space travel and you have a story told by these authors. Both authors do an excellent job illustrating the differences between the star students and the outcasts. However, school is out, and so are the treatments they were all used to receiving. Both the mood and the tone display the need for these characters to become the adults they need to be!

            The appeal surrounding Aurora Rising will be a positive one, and I say this because there are adolescent readers who are sci-fi fans, who have been craving for a new book series about space explorers who are kids like themselves! In response, Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with a trilogy that reflects the Star Trek series. Young readers will enjoy this novel because the characters are kids who just graduated from school and have to deal with the reality of the “real” world/universe. Adult readers will enjoy this book because it will remind them of how they were like after completing school and continuing on with life. The truth within the fiction is what will appeal to readers the most. And yes, I’m already looking forward to the second book in this series!

            Aurora Rising is a fun sci-fi book that presents the collaboration of two authors to readers who are both familiar and unfamiliar with them. While both the character development and the world-building are well done, the plot leaves more questions than answers, which means there will be a follow up to this book, obviously. Yet, the story is entertaining enough for readers to want more from this trilogy. 

My rating: Enjoy it (4 out of 5).