Anyone who read Rena Rossner’s fantasy debut Sisters of the Winter Wood won’t be surprised by the news that her sophomore novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, is equally excellent. A beautiful meditation on faith, loss, displacement, and grief, it is also a story of triumph and perseverance in the face of tremendous odds, all told in the lyrical, evocative style of the best tales from folklore.
That Rossner’s book feels magical from start to finish is an understatement. Buffeted by stories, excerpts, and snippets from regional folktales and the fictional religious text known as the Book of the Solomonars, The Light of the Midnight Stars feels as though it’s a brand new story that also happens to be as old as time. (There’s a certain air that repeated myths and folktales often gain through the act of retelling and reshaping over many years, and this book has that in spades.)
It follows the story of three sisters in fourteenth-century Hungary, daughters of an eminent local rabbi who upholds the traditions of the Solomonars, a sect capable of powerful magic. Each of the sisters has her own special gifts: Hannah, the eldest, is talented at growing things and curing the sick; defiant Sarah can control fire and wants nothing so much as the opportunities granted to the men of her faith; sweet youngest daughter Levana obsesses over the stars and the varied futures they might hold for her and her family.
The rabbi and his family face their share of tragedies and persecution, ultimately finding themselves driven from their home when Hannah falls in love with the Christian son of a high-ranking noble, whose mother doesn’t want her son consorting with Jews, the very people being blamed for an encroaching and deadly plague.
When the sisters arrive in Wallachia the sisters are forced to take on new identities and leave the lives they once knew behind them. Rossner goes so far as to completely reinvent the narrative around this decision, which is both jarring and brave in its way, but the snippets of the girls’ old lives can’t seem to stay buried, either in terms of their faith or their memories.
Rossner’s proves is lyrical and rich and each sister has a clearly defined point of view that’s specific to them and their desires. (Warning, Levana’s obsession with the stars causes her chapters to drift into what is essentially magical realism at points, and is definitely the strangest of the three.)
Hannah’s story is a study in grief, as she must not only learn to survive when the thing she cares about most is taken away from her but resilience as well, as she is the sister who is most frequently asked to bear terrible burdens. Sarah’s romance with a young yeshivah student is charming, but her bullish insistence on rule-breaking can be tiring at first – until she realizes that there is a cost that comes with her actions.
A story of a family that reads like the most gut-wrenching of tragedies, The Light of the Midnight Stars is also shot through with love and faith in the most surprising and beautiful of ways. Hannah finds her heart again, while Sarah claims a future she never thought she could possess. Levana, for her part, becomes…something alien and beautiful and while her story is probably the saddest of the three, there are elements of cold, fierce beauty within it.
The Light of the Midnight Stars is available now. Let us know if you plan to give it a look this spring!