Medieval Russia comes to life in Katherine Arden’s WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY, which began in Lesnaya Zemlya, a small village in northern Rus’ in The Bear and the Nightingale and continued in The Girl in the Tower. Vasilisa (Vasya) is a young woman with the rare ability to see and speak with the natural spirits or chyerti of the hearth, stables, and lands and waters of Rus’. Vasya has gained the attention and respect of the winter-king Morozko, god of death, who has helped her along the way as she fought and bound the demonic Bear, traveled from Lesnaya Zemlya to Moscow, and undertook a dangerous masquerade as a boy while fighting to protect Moscow and her family from both an evil sorcerer and the Mongol invaders.
The Winter of the Witch (2019) begins in the aftermath of a huge fire that burned much of Moscow. The distraught people of Moscow are whipped into a rage by Vasya’s nemesis, the priest Konstantin, who blames Vasya for the fire (with some justice). Vasya is captured by a mob and nearly burned to death as a witch. Though she escapes, a tragic loss leaves her reeling, and now a terrible price has been paid on her behalf. The Bear is on the loose again, pulling Konstantin into his plans for war and chaos, and Morozko has disappeared into some hidden prison. The vast Tatar armies, the Golden Horde, are still on the move against Moscow, and Vasya has perilous journeys to make through magical midnight lands as she tries to save her country and the humans and spirits that she loves. Vasya has gained in personal strength and magical power from her beginnings in the village of Lesnaya Zemlya, but she still makes some serious mistakes along the way.
In the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY, Arden has proved herself particularly adept at weaving together folklore and actual history. The Winter of the Witch focuses on the events leading up to the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, but puts a fantastical spin on it. As the country lurches toward war, Vasya is guided into the midnight realm of Polunochnitsa, or Lady Midnight, where she meets not only one of her ancestors ― a famous Russian folklore character in her own right ― but the mythical firebird, Pozhar (whose other form is a golden mare), and a delightfully opinionated mushroom spirit that Vasya called Ded Grib (Grandfather Mushroom). Pozhar and Ded Grib represent the high and the lowly among the chyerti, whom Vasya is trying to protect along with the humans who inhabit Russia. Even Medved, the fearsome Bear who played such a terrifying role in The Bear and the Nightingale, becomes more understandable and sympathetic, or at least much more entertaining as a character. It’s a nice reminder that even villains have some positive characteristics.
He spoke of Russia. Not of Muscovy, or Tver, or Vladimir, the principalities of the sons of Kiev, but of Russia itself, of its skies and its soil, its people and its pride.
She listened in rapt silence, eyes vast and filled like cups with shadow. “That is what we are fighting for,” said Sasha. “Not for Moscow, or even Dmitrii; not for the sake of any of her squabbling princes. But for the land that bore us, man and devil alike.”
The tensions between Christianity and the old pagan ways, humans vs. chyerti, are ultimately resolved in a way that I hadn’t expected, but that I found profoundly moving, and Arden’s writing style is entrancing. The Winter of the Witch is not just the coming-of-age story of a girl with magical powers, or a romance, though it has both of those elements; it deals with larger themes, like love of country, individual worth, self-sacrifice, and cooperation with those who are different. The WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY was a wonderful series from beginning to end, and I give it my highest recommendation.
Winter of the Witch brings Katherine Arden’s WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY to a strong, bittersweet close in a memorable finale that seals the deal on this trilogy. Picking up shortly after the events of The Girl in the Tower (spoilers for both this and book one to follow), Arden both broadens the setting tapestry and heightens the stakes — just what you want in a concluding book.
Structurally, Winter of the Witch is really three different stories. In the first, Vasya has to deal with the repercussion of her nearly burning down Moscow (accidentally) when she freed the firehorse/firebird. Those consequences arrive in the form of an angry mob pounding on the gates of her sister’s compound, their fear and hatred fanned even higher by Father Konstantin. By the end of this scene, Vasya is nearly burned to death herself and Father Konstantin has made a pact with the devil (the Winter-King’s brother — Medved, “The Bear”). The second part of the narrative follows Vasya as she travels through Midnight, a “realm not made up of days or seasons, but midnights [where] you can cross the world in an instant so long as it is midnight where you are going.” And the last section has her return to the human world to intervene in the coming war between the Tatars and the Russians.
The first is a tense, claustrophobic tale, with people trapped behind gates, amidst a press of people, in a cage. It also serves to reintroduce all the major players and set up important plots/themes: Konstantin’s bargain with Medved, the distrust of the Russian people for the unseen world (and those who see it), the rising tension with the Tatars as Dmitri tries to avoid war, and the strength of women as well as their constraints, shown here mostly through Vasya’s sister Olga, who feels the weight of realizing how “when the world moved outside her walls, there was very little she could do. She was reduced to pleading; a princess with power enough to keep her family safe.” One of my favorite aspects of this series has been how Arden carves out a space for female strength without throwing wholly overboard the cultural constraints of the time, by either pretending they don’t exist or by having no consequences for flouting them (the “Hey, her feisty, ‘the hell with the rules’ attitude is really kinda charming, so let’s forget everything we’ve ever thought or done before!” mode of storytelling).
The second narrative becomes more traditionally fantastical as Vasya enters the Midnight realm and interacts with more of the magical creatures, the chyerti (including a great little “mushroom” one who lightens the tone but also shows us a wider spectrum beyond the “greater beings”); learns more about her own family’s past which involves an old woman, magic, twins, betrayal, mysterious births; and then goes on a quest to free the Winter King from a magical prison before the two try to turn the tables on his brother, the Bear, back in Moscow. The pace here is more leisurely and the language somewhat more lyrical, while the romantic elements are emphasized a bit more alongside the fantastical ones. It is in this section, as well, that the Bear is seen as more complex of a character, as when, for instance, he tells Vasya something she cannot sincerely dispute:
If men are unchecked, one day there will be no chyerti, no road through Midnight, no wonder in the world at all … Men fear what they do not understand … Men will suck all the wildness out of the world … They will burn you and all your kind.
Similarly, Vasya sees a different aspect of the Winter King in this section and starts to feel her way toward an incomplete understanding, more perhaps a vague sense, that things aren’t quite as simple as she had once thought.
That concept is given narrative body when the second section ends with the conflict with Medved and Konstantin seemingly resolved, but not the novel. In other words, “good” defeats “evil,” but “victory” does not end the tale. In the third section (and to be clear, these are my divisions, not Arden’s), Vasya’s inner complications are mirrored in both her actions while trying to forestall and then win the war, and in the greater political conflict itself. Everyone, seemingly, has to give up a simplistic view of their world if that world (the one of Rus) is to continue and not be made merely part of the Tatar empire. In this third section of Winter of the Witch, the mortal world and the chyerti interact most fully, with Vasya as the rope that binds them together, though one that threatens to unravel/break under the strain and torment of being pulled in two directions. Both her internal torment and the external action ramps up, with dramatic chase scenes, captures and escapes, floods and fires, all culminating in the climactic Battle of Kulikovo, a real-life battle that some point to as the beginning of a united Russia.
As Vasya fights for her country, and for the chyerti, she also fights for her place in the world as a girl growing into a woman. As mentioned earlier, Arden does an excellent job of handling this topic in a more mature, if less satisfying, fashion than many such stories. She also has some killer lines, all the more effective for their knife’s-edge brevity, as when she sharply tells one character, “You shouldn’t have told them I was a girl. Then they might have believed I was dangerous.” Or when she stands up to the Winter King for her right to desire, a right men take as their birthright: “yes, I want Dmitri’s admiration. I want a victory. I even want power, over princes and chyerti. I am allowed to want things, winter-king.” And I love that Arden does not end this with an exclamation point; this is no tantrum, no foot stomp — it’s a simple statement of should-be-obvious fact. Though here, again, Arden eschews the gratifyingly simple, as in the real world the wanting of things, and/or the gaining of them, does not come without a price. And thus, the appropriately bittersweet nature of this story by the end.
The WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY is an excellent series, staring out strong with The Bear and the Nightingale, but then improving on that promising start with The Girl in the Tower before wrapping it all up in an achingly satisfying conclusion with The Winter of the Witch. I look forward to seeing what Arden does next.
As with its predecessors, The Winter of the Witch delivers a detailed, beautiful 14th century Russia, and a powerful tale that weaves in lots of folkloric influences. By the end of Arden’s third book, her main character Vasya has grown from a girl into a mature woman and come confidently into her own power… and Russia has united.
The path Vasya follows through midnight is not easy, and, as in the first and second books, she suffers real loss along the way. I liked the way a confrontation with Medved the Bear, about two-thirds of the way through the book, seems like it should be a climax, and isn’t — and I loved that Lady Midnight is angry and disappointed in Vasya after that confrontation. Vasya’s attempts to do the right thing challenge her loyalties at every turn. That is part of the power of this book.
Much of this story is about loyalty. Vasya’s monk brother Sasha is loyal to his family and also loyal to the Grand Prince Dmitri, but Dmitri has chosen allies that place his kingdom in danger. Dmitri also threatens Vasya, but Vasya’s often-impulsive actions (such as releasing the firebird in The Girl in the Tower) threaten the safety of her sister and niece. Arden conveys clearly how precarious the lives of women, even powerful ones, were in this society, and some of Vasya’s choices have no right answers, only ones that are less wrong.
In contrast to Vasya, who goes deep into a shadowy forest to uncover the truth and fulfill her mission, the priest Konstantin’s refusal to acknowledge the shadows within him render him vulnerable to the Bear. Konstantin has been Vasya’s adversary since the first book, and since he was promised glory and power in an earlier book, I wanted to see his triumph and elevation in a little more detail. I believe he is ordained bishop, but I didn’t see it. He is still a well-developed character who ultimately tries to do the right thing.
This is a trivial, and even frivolous detail, but I love the way Arden writes horses, whether it’s Vasya’s faithful friend Solovey the bay colt, or Pozhar the firebird, who also takes the form of a golden mare. The horses converse with Vasya magically, but they also behave like horses, and Arden has done her homework here. If you’ve ever known an ill-tempered horse who nipped, you’ll recognize Pozhar right away.
Arden accomplishes that difficult task of transmuting a ton of research into a lush and believable world, all the while making it look easy. Like Bill, I eagerly wait to see what she does next.