When I first began to jot down notes about this rather long fantasy novel during a pause while reading it, I couldn’t remember the title. Something about stars, I thought. It’ll come back to me. The Light of the Midnight Stars, interpreted literally, sounds terribly romantic, but such light is only a faint sparkling glimmer, barely shedding enough illumination to read or see your way by on a dark night. It’s weak.
I want to quote extensively from the Author’s Note, in which Rossner records her research. While looking for information about her forebears, she had:
walked along the winding pathways of the history of the Jews in medieval Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and what is today Slovakia, I encountered the mythology and folklore of the region, I delved into local fairy tales along the way, and into the rich tradition of Hassidic tales from the region … [the novel] is also [a] fairy tale retelling of the Romanian tale “Boys with Golden Stars” from Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book … [the novel] is also a retelling of the Romanian poem Luceafărul by Mihai Eminescu—a narrative poem based on Romanian folklore about a princess who falls in love with a star. Eminescu based this story on the Romanian folk-myth of the Zburător—a dragon-like spirit with a wolf-like head and a tail of fire that makes love to maidens in their beds at night … I’ve always wanted to write a Jewish dragon story. And in my research I discovered the teli—a serpent-like holy Jewish dragon … I knew these dragons had to find a way into my book. Along the way I discovered another Romanian legend—the story of the Solomonars, red-headed mountain men who could control the weather and rode cloud dragons in the skies … that was when I stumbled upon the Hassidic story about Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau … and the story of his daughter who fell in love with a prince who converted to Judaism and married her, only to be burnt at the stake as a traitor to the throne … granted, this story is said to have taken place in the fifteenth century, but this is a fantasy novel, and I’d found the story I wanted to tell … Along the way I read many tales about foxes … [and] the Perek Shirah (literally Chapter of Song) which dates back to the tenth century if not earlier and is a compilation of various Talmudic, Midrashic and biblical texts … It wasn’t too far a leap to take it to the place of being a kind of manual for meditation and transformation.
This is all rich material, and it is clear why Rossner was so attracted to what she found in her research. But what she has created with these prompts and inspirations is patchwork, a mashup of scraps and forgotten pieces. It takes discipline and restraint to create art through patchwork, by letting the individual elements speak for themselves as well as speak to each other. Patchwork also needs a stout foundation, and is held together by discreet stitching in thread that doesn’t usually call attention to itself. This novel doesn’t fit any of those criteria. It is overwhelmed by tensions from the different stories tugging the narrative in different directions, and too much is left unexamined.
I was particularly disappointed that the novel’s strong foundation of Jewish history has been smothered by mismatched fantasy elements that shriek excitedly at each other, making a lot of noise to no good end. There is a man with red hair who may or may not be a fox, a gender- and shape-changing witch, and a series of angry mothers. The twin boys with stars on their foreheads are surely Castor and Pollux by different names. The three protagonists change their names, and then change them back again. It’s bewildering, and it is not compelling reading.
So much for the patchwork pieces: how are they put together?
First, the novel is written for YA readers—I think. I mention this here because the marketing for the book says nothing about YA, and features enthusiastic endorsements from significant writers of adult fantasy. Those of the novel’s character relationships that culminate in sex, however, are described more in terms of strained emotions and stomach-flipping tension than explicit physical detail. The three protagonists tell us a great deal about their hopes, dreams, fears, and worries, and girls agonise about boys, a lot. So YA seems the obvious market for this novel, or a readership concerned with maintaining modesty.
The story is set in a fairy-tale fourteenth-century Hungary, and is narrated by three sisters, Hannah, Sarah and Levana, the daughters of Rabbi Isaac. They are descendants of King Solomon and thus have magical powers. (Just accept it.) Rabbi Isaac can turn himself into a cloud of mist and then into a cloud dragon. Hannah can make the garden grow, and Sarah is a fire-starter. It’s not very clear what Levana’s magical powers are but she does converse with the stars. Their mother is good at herbalism but this doesn’t seem to be magical. There is a Black Mist floating through the forests and it’s blighting the leaves and the people. If Rossner had been content to work with just these elements this could have been an interesting novel, but her ambition instead exceeds her grasp—in other words, the patchwork pieces are not put together. They are wildly out of control.
The narration is clumsy. The three sisters take turns to narrate their experiences, all in the first person, in undifferentiated voices, in separate chapters. Each chapter is labelled with the speaking sister’s name so the reader doesn’t get confused. In case we do, helpful clunky remarks are placed in the first paragraphs of each chapter to shunt us into Hannah’s journals, or Sarah’s interior voice. The three sisters’ chapters are interspersed with annoying scraps of fairy tale, patched in from authentic legends to signal (I think) important moments in the plot. Sections of The Book of the Solomonars, an invented chronicle, are also inserted in between some chapters, commenting on the events in the plot. These interpolations merely annoy, and I lost interest in trying to find what relevance they had.
The scenery has holes; the extras are made of cardboard. The characters speak in contemporary Americanised dialogue: since when did a fourteenth-century person, or even a fairy tale character, speak of giving another person “some space”? Or say “tokay”? The dialogue between courting boys and girls is straight out of a teenage soap opera. It was no pleasure to read.
Hannah’s journals in particular are simply not believable. Rossner stresses several times in her extensive Author’s Note that this is not a historical novel (the appearance of the first cloud-dragon was quite a strong hint), but even in fantasy there needs to be an economic basis to the invented society, and social norms that the characters need adhere to. Hannah apparently dutifully writes up her diary after events that must be recorded, no matter how tired she is after a day nursing the prince’s mother or getting lost in the woods. Even though I cannot at this moment think of any traditional fairy tales that involve a woman writing, I am prepared to accept that in this fantasy version of fourteenth-century Hungarian forest society, a Jewish girl could be literate and have the money to buy paper to write on. But I am pretty sure that paper notebooks did not exist in that period, so I would have liked to read a bit more about the industry and craft in the fantasy background that created such books on which a low-status Jewish family would have allowed her to squander money.
Even if we accept the journals as a conventional means to tell a story in the first person, how do they survive the terrible fire that Hannah abandons them to? Who rescues, transcribes, and collates the journals with her sisters’ oral accounts? It’s too complicated to bother working out, so let’s just further accept that three separate protagonists’ minds, as well as those of various other minor characters, are focalised by a visiting omniscient narrative voice who is otherwise not present. Rossner may well have studied on an American writing programme, but these are cardinal pitfalls that such students are usually taught how to avoid. Choosing the right pieces of research to use, and learning what to cut to serve the story, is also a wise lesson to learn.
It is a great pity that Rossner did not give more attention to nurturing her inventive imagination to create her own world from these remarkable source materials. She has patched borrowed scraps into a messy, cobbled scaffold of a story, but she could have done so much more.