There are princes and princesses aplenty in Rena Rossner’s new fantasy novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, and enough of the fantastical to satisfy the most ardent Grimm fan. But just because a story starts with Once-upon-a-time doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed a fairytale happily-ever-after ending. It is the sense of suspense — and the fragility of the world the book explores — that will keep readers’ imaginations churning.
The story follows a traditional folktale outline: an eminent rabbi’s three daughters search for true love and identity in fourteenth century Hungary. The eldest daughter is possessed of an amazing ability to heal the sick. She is taken by the regional prince to heal his mother, the queen, who is suffering from an illness feared to be caused by a plague the author calls the Black Mist, which we know as the Black Death, which killed many millions of people in the late Middle Ages. Rossner skilfully weaves history into the fantastical here, and throughout the book.
We witness the love that develops between the eldest daughter and the prince. When he renounces his wealth and family in order to be accepted as a suitor in his betrothed’s community, we feel the importance of his choice to be with the woman he loves. This personal sacrifice brings only tragedy, however, as the rabbi’s entire family is forced to flee persecution from the Royals when their wrath and hatred for their son’s new religious beliefs tear apart the entire Jewish community and the place they call home. Now we see the aftermath of hate and how it will shape each sister’s ability to trust others. Their lives will never be the same; henceforth they will be forced to hide their identities, religion, and magical abilities from a population that has shown itself quick to harm those who are different.
Both younger sisters follow their own journeys in pursuit of love, regardless of personal sacrifice. The middle sister tries to reconcile the loyalty she feels to a suitor even though she doesn’t know if he is still alive, while the youngest struggles to deny the attentions of an “acceptable” suitor, while being attracted to and seduced by a fantastical “star man” who visits her at night.
Magical powers, religious freedom, a woman’s place in society, these are the novel’s concerns. Readers will feel a connection to the time and place, as it serves as a constant reminder of what we fight for daily — freedom to be ourselves and to choose our own destinies.
Hazel McNulty Czapsky is an avid reader who currently lives and works in New York City.