The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

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ARC provided by Orbit in exchange for an honest review.

“Sometimes you know when you don’t belong, but you don’t know how to leave.”

This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read in my entire life. It was also able to evoke such a visceral reading experience from me. I never wanted to put this book down! And I knew that this was going to be heavy on the Russian folklore, but I had no idea that this was also a reimagining of Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. And I swear, I don’t remember consuming any fruit while reading this, yet I am still completely under this book’s spell. And I for sure also recommend this to people who also love The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and Uprooted by Naomi Novik!

“If you want to know the history of a town, read the gravestones in its cemetery.”

Not everyone is going to love this book. In fact, I bet a lot of people will DNF this one. But if you love this story, you’re going to be completely captivated from the first page and you’re never going to want this story to be over. Friends, I fell head over heels in love with this story.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood follows two Jewish sisters who live on the outskirts of a town, in a forest, with their mother and father. Their family feels rather isolated in Dubossary, (on the border of Moldova and Ukraine), but they make do the best that they can, always relying on each other. That is until one day the mother and father get called away and leave their precious daughters behind. Yet, before leaving, the mother tells them a secret that she has been keeping from them their entire lives. And this secret changes everything.

“We can’t fight our natures, even though we try. A bear will always be a bear, and a swan a swan. Everyone fights, malyshka; everyone questions their choices. Even people who love each other.”

Liba – 17, devout, smart, stern, keeps to herself not letting anyone in. Starts to have feelings for a boy that has grown up right in their town, who is also Jewish. He also is kind, and caring, and protective, and comes from a good family.

Laya – 15, questioning, beautiful, graceful, and easily gains friends. Starts to have feelings for a boy that is new to town, that has come selling fruit with some other questionable young boys that are very prejudiced towards Jewish people.

And this switches points of view, back and forth, between two sisters. One sister’s point of view is standard format, yet the other sister’s point of view is told in verse! Again, very reminiscent of the way Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti is told. But surprisingly enough, I ended up loving Laya’s verse chapters more than the standard story telling.

I don’t want to give away anything about this book, because I truly think it is best to go into blind. So, I’m holding back that very big secret that Laya and Liba’s mother has hidden from them, but I will say that because of the secret, Liba says some very questionable things about her body in comparison to her sister’s body. I’ll mention it again in my trigger warnings at the very end of this review, but I will say that the only negative thing about this book, in my eyes, is Liba’s thoughts on her body. And I do understand that she is seventeen years old, and that even in 2018 society puts so many horrible body standards on us at every age and everywhere we look. But, it still always made me a little sad when I’d read about her not loving her body as much as her thinner sister’s. It’s truly the only real complaint I have about this novel, and please use caution because I think some of the things that Liba says and thinks about her “thicker” body and her “hunger” can be really potentially triggering.

But there are two different romances, between each sister and two boys they meet in town, where the sisters start to learn about their bodies and the feelings and reactions that their bodies are making them feel. This is for sure a book about two young girls both discovering their sexuality for the first time not feeling like they are forced to repress what they feel, since their family (and their religion, standards, and judgment) has left them alone.

“Death lives here. Death will always live here.”

And while the romances and these girls discovering things about themselves are for sure at the forefront of this story, a murder mystery is also going on in the background. And this book very much showcases what hate-mongering is and how scare-tactics can make people do unspeakable things. This book is heavily influenced by the pogroms of the early 1900s where many Jewish families and communities were murdered. And the author pulls this from her family’s real experiences.

And Rena Rossner’s writing completely moved me to feel every single emotion. This story is just crafted so expertly, in my opinion. And this author’s prose is on a tier above most. I feel like she captured this setting and atmosphere in a way that just feels like pure magic. And she seamlessly wove in all these homages that build such a perfect story. Also, this book has the best acknowledgments I’ve read in all of 2018. I thought I was going to be able to make it through the book without crying, and then I read the author’s heartfelt words talking about her family, her influences, and why she wrote this story. Friends, I don’t even have words. I also really appreciated the glossary with Hebrew words and pronunciations!

Ultimately though, this is a book about the bond of sisterhood and found family and doing whatever you can to support and help the people you love. Yet, this is also a story about realizing that you are worthy of love and deserving of all the unconditional love in the world.

“I get to choose what kind of strong I want to be.”

Overall, this is one of my favorite reads of 2018. Yet, I will say that this book does have a lot of things in my personal reading wheelhouse that I enjoy. It’s about learning that you deserve unconditional love and finding yourself among people who cannot accept you for who you are. It’s a book that had a forest setting, that is a reimagining of one of my favorite stories of all-time. It’s gorgeously written and tackles some really heartbreaking moments in our world’s history. I just loved this one, friends. And I hope if you pick it up, that you will love it as well.

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The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

Content and trigger warnings for a lot of antisemitism (but always in a negative light and challenged), captivity, drugging, blood depiction, physical abuse, talk of past rape, talk of slavery, murder, torture, death, misogynistic comments and ideals, grey area consent (doing sexual things while one person is magically enthralled), some questionable body image/shaming comments and thoughts, and questionable thoughts about food and eating that could potentially be triggering.

Buddy read with Jules at JA Ironside & Michaela at Journey into Books! ❤

35 thoughts on “The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

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