My thanks to Orbit/Little, Brown Book Co and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.
This, like the author’s previous book The Sisters of the Winter Wood combines history, fantasy, Jewish folklore, and fairy tales (the previous book didn’t have a fairy tale but Christina Rossetti’s Gobin Market as its base). In 14th-century Hungary, in the small village of Trnava lives Rabbi Issac with his wife and three daughters, Hannah, Sarah and Levana; also the Rabbi’s old mother. They are Solomonars, descendants of a clan to whom Solomon had handed his secrets. Each of the family possesses certain powers—Rabbi Isaac can change form, his wife has healing powers and knowledge which she is passing on to Hannah who also has a way with making plants grow; Sarah can weave by magic and also can set fire to things, and Levana is absorbed in the stars. The Rabbi and his wife are training each of the girls in certain skills but Sarah in particular feels very dissatisfied and is rebellious for she feels she is not getting the opportunity to do the things she would were she a boy, in particular to study the texts that boys can. The story is told mostly in the narratives of the three girls with folklore and third-person sections tying them together.
The family are leading a relatively peaceful, devout life but a dark mist is creeping across the country and into their lives, something each of the girls can sense but don’t seem to share with anyone else. While their father and his students/disciples seem to be taking steps to keep this at bay, it spreads and ultimately brings tragedy into their lives as not only must they suffer personally, they are blamed for bringing the misfortune upon their village and must flee. In a new village, a safe place, they give up their heritage, their names and their past and start anew. But can they really be safe and finally find happiness or will trouble follow them in their new lives as well?
This was something of a mixed read for me. Starting out with the story, I found it very easy to get into the three sisters narratives, enjoyed their individual voices, and seeing events proceed from each of their perspectives. (Compared to the Sisters of the Winter Wood, where I felt I needed to get my head around some of the plotlines, and reading the basic story of Goblin Market made it easier to follow, in this book I didn’t face that problem). I felt for the family, for all that they lost, and that they had (as many other have) to live in constant fear, constant uncertainty, not knowing when they would have to give up their home, become unwanted again. Of the three girls themselves, I liked Hannah and Levana better than Sarah somehow (though Levana was rather strange compared to the other two). I felt Sarah, though one understands the reasons for her dissatisfaction, has a touch of nastiness, also of selfishness about her. Still all three girls are strong—have to face much, bear much, and give up much, still they carry on and keep trying. One can’t but admire them for that.
I also found I enjoyed the stories and elements of folklore that are interwoven in and between the different narratives. I liked reading those, and also following the lives of each of the three girls.
The issue for me in the book lay in the fact that I felt like the stories of the three girls, the paths they follow and where they end up, didn’t really fell cohesive like part of a single tale—they felt like different stories that could well have been complete in themselves and that were just put together. Also, while Hannah’s and Sarah’s stories involved fantasy elements and a bit of magic, Levana’s felt like it belonged to an entirely different realm than that of the other two even though the author has woven it in with their world.
So this turned out to be a book with many elements I enjoyed but one that didn’t quite seem one story over all. (The cover by the way, is once again absolutely gorgeous).