Strange Verse: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

Fantasy is frequently dominated by Christian mysticism, by the inspirations of European medieval myth-making, and by the enduring influence of early modern Western European colonialism. It’s always refreshing, then, when a fantasy novel draws on explicitly anti-colonial (the oeuvre of N.K. Jemisin), Muslim (Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed) or Jewish (The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker) inspirations and cultural topoi.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood is Rena Rossner’s debut novel. A retelling of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” with added influences from Ukrainian and Russian folktales of swan-maidens and bear-men, it sets itself in the first decade of the 20th century in the Transnistrian town of Dubossary  and concerns itself deeply with Jewishness and Jewish cultural life in small-town Eastern Europe.

The main protagonists, eighteen-year-old Liba and sixteen-year-old Laya, are the daughters of the very learned son of a Hasidic rabbi (from ...