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Saturday, May 2, 2020

Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden (Reviewed by David Stewart)



One of the things I will miss most, now that the Winternight Trilogy has ended, is that at the beginning of each book, Katherine Arden has one of her characters tell a Russian folk tale, usually to a child, that foreshadows events to come within the narrative. These snippets don't spoil anything, but they set a tone for what's to come, and send a chill up my spine every time. Winter of the Witch, coming right on the heels of The Girl in the Tower, does not seem like it will find a dull moment in which to tell this folk tale, but it manages and that is basically one of the last peaceful moments in the entire book. Arden ends her trilogy in as grandly Russian a way as I can think of, and I am going to pine for her writing in years to come.

Strengths

At the end of The Girl in the Tower, Moscow is burning and Vasya is beat up. Vasya being beat up is the basic premise of Winter of the Witch, and for the entirety of the novel we rarely see her without bruises or cuts, mental and physical. The opening of the book is one of the most traumatic events a human being can go through, and it sets a tone for the rest of Vasya's journey. As hard as it is to read about the violence humans are capable of, it is almost necessary in this instance because it does not take long for Vasya to find her power. When she does, she becomes a force to be reckoned with, and without some kind of weakness or fear, she would run into the problem of near-invincibility. Her early trauma also leaves her vulnerable, and while she seems capable of facing down demons and the things that lurk in the dark, it is the actions of humans that frighten her most.

Where The Girl in the Tower dealt with an immortal human sorcerer, Winter of the Witch brings us back into the conflict between Morozko and the Bear, fae brothers who wage an eternal war, with humans used as pawns. Vasya, in The Bear and the Nightingale, was at the center of this conflict, but Arden gives her the agency in Winter of the Witch to become her own faction, and it's a clever method of allowing her to finally break away from the confines of others and be her own power.

Arden's use of fae weirdness is also elevated in exciting ways as Vasya starts to travel down the paths of midnight, a mystical realm where she can pop in and out of anywhere as long as that place is enshrouded in those late hours of the night. Arden's knowledge of Russian folklore gets to have free reign in this novel more than in any other. If Katherine Arden ever published a book about the various weird creatures in Russian mythology, I would be 100% interested in reading it. I actually wish there were more of this in her novels than there is, and there's already a fair amount.

Weaknesses

With Vasya's great power comes a bit of plot armor that is difficult at times to reconcile. While she gets beat up almost consistently throughout the tale, there are times where she feels invincible, which leads to a lack of stakes. Thankfully, there are only a few spots in the novel where this might be an issue.

The biggest problem I have with Winter of the Witch is that I wish it would have ended after its third part. There are four parts in total, with the entire fourth act as one battle sequence that, to me, felt out of place and forced. Arden talks in her acknowledgements about how she had always intended to end her trilogy at the Battle of Kulikovo, a historical event with some of the same figures as those in her novel. This is a respectable goal, but never once did I feel that the paths of these books would lead to a large battle against an enemy that is only ever an existential threat to the south. My reading of this series was always centered on Medved and Morozko, on Vasya and Konstantin and the Petrovna family. All of these characters do factor into that battle, but not in the way one might have expected when setting out on this journey. Winter of the Witch feels like a book that is over after its third part, with the fourth part feeling more like an offshoot sequel than part of this book. Perhaps students of Russian history would have a different perception of this, knowing what they know about the characters of these novels. For me, it was off-putting even if well told and exciting.

If You Liked

If you're invested in this series, this is an easy recommendation and it is a satisfying conclusion despite my misgivings about its final section. Vasya's growth over these three novels is remarkable, and Arden even manages to leave the door open to future development of the character. This book is also an easy recommendation for anyone interested in fae fantasy - books like Jeannette Ng's Under the Pendulum Sun, which deals with English fae instead of Russian fae but shares similar themes. There is a fair bit of romance in Arden's trilogy, and readers who find relationships between the supernatural and mundane engaging would find much to love here (though for those who aren't interested in the romance genre, it is never over-stated in any of these books).

Parting Thoughts

This is a series that I have been eager for and interested in since its first debut, and Katherine Arden has become a name to look for on shelves. I will be curious to see where she goes after this. Her heart seems to be in Russia, and there is certainly much more inspiration to be drawn from that frigid landscape. The Winternight Trilogy feels timeless, a thing to come back to every few years when the fire is roaring, logs popping, a cup of something warm to keep the wintry demons at bay (or something cold should one wish them nearer). Vasilisa Petrovna is one of those characters who feels real to me, like she's out there somewhere, roaming the various shadow realms that I'll likely never see. Those are the characters I look for in my fiction - the unforgettable heroes, the ones that defy everything to choose their own path. We need those. 

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