The Sisters of the Winter Wood was incredibly promising. It’s a heavily Jewish book with lovely fantasy overtones. There are shapeshifters and mysterious newcomers peddling forbidden fruit and a deeply atmospheric forest, as well as a central sibling relationship and deep religious questions to ponder. It sounded made for me. So made for me that I ignored the fact that it’s YA. I should’ve known better. While I enjoyed the plot and the structure, the usual YA all-consuming romances and the characters’ inner struggles with coming to know and accept themselves were cloyingly overabundant and negatively impacted my reading experience. However, I feel like this is on me, not the book. I should know by now that YA usually doesn’t work for me. I was almost as disappointed by this book as I was by Uprooted, which I think is comparable in setting and atmosphere.
“To love means to sacrifice everything that you are.”
I love the alternating formats of the chapters. Liba, the more solid and down-to-earth sister, tells her part of the story in lovely prose. Laya, the flightier, more artistic sister, gives her thoughts in ephemeral free verse. This alternating format was one of my favorite elements of the book. My other favorite element was the inclusion of so much Jewish culture and mythology. I love learning new things about cultures outside of my own, and Jewish culture in particular has always fascinated me, as from it stems my Christian faith. The inclusion of Hebrew words and customs was so enlightening, and is honestly almost entirely responsible for third star in my rating, along with the wonderful afterword that explained the real events that inspired this story, and how those events were tied into her personal heritage. I also found the way the author portrayed racial and religious prejudice as simmering just below the surface of even the most benign of settings, waiting for the smallest trigger to be incited into boiling mistrust and persecution, incredibly telling. Because hasn’t that been the way of the world since time immemorial? We’re also so eager to latch onto any reason to look down on and mistreat those who are not mirror images of ourselves.
“Jews always come out battered, bruised, but still triumphant. Because we believe in God, in community, in compassion, and in the power of our people to endure.”
My least favorite elements of this book go hand in hand. I strongly disliked the author’s handling of romance. It felt forced and trite and never rang true to me. As soon as either sister found a romantic interest, all of the things that made her individual character interesting were completely negated as she was consumed by the relationship. This directly correlates to my other main issue: the sisters themselves. At the very beginning of the novel, I found the sisters interesting. By the time I was a quarter of the way through, I actively disliked them both. Liba was just a ball of fear and self-loathing for much of the book when she was not in the arms of her romantic interest. Laya, on the other hand, was such a free spirit that she seemed incapable of caring for others. Both girls were completely driven by appetite in different ways, and those cravings engulfed all of their other personality traits. Characters I’m sure were supposed to be strong female protagonists ended up coming across as simpering or selfish, respectively.
“I get to choose what kind of strong I want to be.”
I’ve also come to the conclusion that I have no taste for needless melodrama. When people suffer because they refuse to openly communicate, I have absolutely no sympathy for them. I’m also sick to death of female protagonists who are wracked with such strong self-image issues that they basically hate themselves and think they’re worthless, even when everyone around them thinks they’re wonderful. It’s needy and obnoxious and so overdone. There are a select few authors in my reading experience whose prose can support such flaws in ways that minimize my desire to roll my eyes every other paragraph, but that’s not what was delivered in this particular book. However, this did thankfully improve toward the very end of the book, although the growth felt a bit forced; the author did a good bit of showing instead of telling when it came to character development.
“I am brave enough to stand for what I believe in—and I believe in you.”
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a book that didn’t quite manage to deliver on its promises, though that is a very subjective opinion. I will say that the ending redeemed both plot and characters, as people finally talked to each other, but that happened a bit too late for me to develop any love for the story. There are plenty of readers who will (and have certainly already) adore this book. I just regret that I’m not one of them.
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