There’s a certain thrill that comes from reading a contemporary novel that draws inspiration from an older story or stories. That this could be used as a description for works ranging from Margo Lanagan’s visceral Tender Morsels to Nalo Hopkinson’s interstellar Midnight Robber gives a sense of what’s possible when alluding to older stories—and when creating works that spark a dialogue with their predecessors.
It’s in this tradition that Rena Rossner wrote The Light of the Midnight Stars. In an author’s note at the back of the novel, Rossner explains the disparate sources that informed her book, including a Romainian fairy tale and the history of the founding of Wallachia. Reading her thoughts on them, it’s easy to see what drew Rossner to these stories: they’re complex, metaphorically rich, and transportive in unexpected ways. But reading Rossner’s explanation of her book’s thematic origins also hints at why elements of this book don’t entirely click—despite a compelling group of characters, an abundance of historical detail, and a structural maneuver that pays off about halfway through the novel.
The Light of the Midnight Stars opens in Trnava—located in what was then Hungary and is now Slovakia. When the novel opens, it’s 5119 in the Hebrew calendar; for readers unfamiliar with said calendar, that places the narrative’s opening around 1359 C.E. At the heart of the novel are three sisters—Hannah, Sarah, and Levana—each of whom narrates alternating sections of the novel. Their father is a rabbi who commands a cloud dragon and can alter the flow of rivers; their mother is renowned for her healing abilities. The whole family possesses uncanny abilities, a result of their lineage dating back to King Solomon; Sarah uses the phrase “wielders of the flame of Solomon” early in the book to describe their talents.
Some of the tension to be found within the narrative comes from the characters and setting—Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages was a dangerous time and place to be Jewish, and Rossner makes it clear that the family at this novel’s center could face an angry mob or a bigoted governmental decree at virtually any time. Humans aren’t the only source of danger here, though. “This is the story of the Black Mist which swept through the Carpathian Mountains on the wings of a black dragon,” an unnamed narrator writes at the opening of the book.
The Black Mist is described as a plague with a preternatural side, affecting humans as well as the local flora and fauna. In her Author’s Note, Rossner describes it as “a combination of the Black Plague/Black Death and biblical leprosy, and a metaphor for anti-Semitism.” Narratively speaking, the Black Mist occupies an uneven place. Each of the novel’s narrators has a distinctive arc in the book’s first half, but it isn’t necessarily clear if the Black Mist is meant to be the overarching antagonist (to the extent that a plague can be one) or a part of the setting.
In the novel’s first half, both Hannah and Sarah find love—Hannah with a nobleman, whom she meets when she works to cure his mother of the Black Mist; and Sarah with a young man with a talent for shape-shifting. Levana, the youngest of the three sisters, is less developed than her sisters in the novel’s first half, but takes on a greater prominence within the narrative in the second half.
Halfway through the book, the family faces a hostile situation in Trnava and are forced to flee; at the end of a surreal journey, they reach Wallachia and adopt new identities. There, the two older sisters encounter new faces who echo the loves they left behind in unexpected ways, while their younger sister has a series of surreal, mystical encounters with a star—and begins narrating her sections of the book in verse.
Reading a novel where a plague sweeps through the countryside and the violence of bigots is a constant threat feels all too relevant in 2021. But where The Light of the Midnight Stars falters somewhat is in its ambition. The history and folklore that Rossner invokes here is uniformly fascinating and compelling, but at times the sisters’ stories felt more disparate than parts of a unified whole.
Further complicating things was the role of the Black Mist in the book. At times it felt like a foe to be vanquished, while at others it felt more like a harsh quality of the setting; something that can be eluded but will never fully abate. It’s hard to argue with Rossner’s ambition, nor with the risks she takes in the novel’s second half, which takes the storyline to some unexpected places literally and thematically. But the sheer amount of history and folklore in the mix here can be overwhelming sometimes.
The Light of the Midnight Stars is available from Redhook.