Book Review: The Light of the Midnight Stars by Rena Rossner
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Redhook (April 13, 2021)
Length: 432 pages
Rena Rossner’s debut The Sisters of the Winter Wood was an enchanting read for me, and so when I heard that her sophomore novel will be another historical fantasy and folkloric myth blend, I’d hoped that it would work the same magic. And for the most part, it did! That said, there was also an overwhelming amount of information to take in, and I think that might have had a lot to do with my initial struggle to connect with the story and characters.
The Light of the Midnight Stars follows the lives of three sisters growing up with their rabbi father in the Hungarian village of Trnava. As descendants of King Solomon, their family is well respected by the Jewish community, and the girls are each gifted with a magical ability—Hannah, who has the power to heal and make things grow; Sarah, who can command fire and make things burn; and Levana, who can read the secrets of the stars. However, as superstition runs rampant throughout the rest of the village, bringing religious persecution and fear of witchcraft, the sisters don’t dare to make their abilities known.
But then a mysterious black mist descends upon Trnava, causing people to fall deathly ill. Despite her misgivings, Hannah, the oldest sister, makes a bold decision to use her healing, setting off a tragic chain of events leading to her own heartbreak and the upheaval of the town’s Jewish population. After fleeing Trnava, the rabbi and his family find themselves settling in a new place, protecting themselves by hiding their true faith and identities. Emotionally damaged and traumatized though, the sisters have a long journey ahead of them until they can feel whole and ready to live and love again.
Like I said, there is a lot happening here, and what I’ve provided above is just an extremely truncated synopsis. While the deluge of information made the early parts of the novel slow to take off, I still found myself captivated by many points and took to certain aspects of the story right away. As with The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I was impressed with how Rossner combined magic, myth, and history from her interest and experiences with her own Jewish ancestry. Central to the book is the theme of religious belief and identity, and I feel the author did a wonderful job exploring these topics through the eyes of the three sisters, who are each unique in their own way. Subsequently, they also dealt with their individual conflicts by following their own heart’s desires and motivations, developing along their own paths. As such, it is probably no surprise that characterization was superb.
That said, when it comes to books with an information overload at the beginning, my experience is that things typically tend to ease off as the story progresses, gradually dispelling any feelings of confusion or of being swamped. Except, I don’t know if I really got that with this. In part, this was due to the structure of the novel, which cycled between the sisters’ POVs while weaving in the odd interlude. The tricky part comes, however, as some of these chapters are presented differently, as journal entries or in verse, etc., and the frequent injection of side stories and folktales. In fact, the act of storytelling is a very important concept, a key part of the book’s premise and the myriad legends and historical narratives that inspired its foundations. In a way, this does explain how some mythological motifs would pop up again and again, echoing throughout the characters’ past and present. It’s a clear nod to the importance of the oral tradition in preserving heritage and culture, especially where religious parables and folktales are concerned.
Still, that doesn’t mean the format was all that conducive to the reading experience, or that it made things any easier to understand. The plot doesn’t follow a conventional roadmap, and despite this providing the book with a distinct feel, there were nonetheless sections I found somewhat convoluted and difficult to follow.
In sum, I’m going to reiterate a few of the same conclusions I drew for my review The Sisters of the Winter Wood, because I think a lot of it applies here as well. The Light of the Midnight Stars is beautifully written, but it is also less plot focused, emphasizing the characters and their relationships instead. That along with the irregular structure and flow of the novel means that it’s probably not going to be for everyone, but it’s worth checking out if the story’s description along with its inspiration from Jewish culture and Eastern European history interests you.