Book Review: The Winter of the Witch

36621586The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3)
by Katherine Arden
Fantasy
384 pages
Expected publication: January 8, 2019, by Del Rey Books

From Goodreads: Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen.

Reviewers called Katherine Arden’s novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower “lyrical,” “emotionally stirring,” and “utterly bewitching.” The Winternight Trilogy introduced an unforgettable heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, a girl determined to forge her own path in a world that would rather lock her away. Her gifts and her courage have drawn the attention of Morozko, the winter-king, but it is too soon to know if this connection will prove a blessing or a curse.

Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

My Thoughts books

 

Fairytale retellings have been part of culture for as long as there have been fairy tales. Their characters are recast, their stories adjusted to suit current sensibilities, their settings adjusted to someplace new and exciting. What many of these retellings lack, however, is the sense of wonder and strangeness inherent in the old stories. Fairy tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Giambattista Basile, and others show us an uncanny world where strange figures lurk just out of view and you might find that the road you have walked every day of your life has suddenly delivered you to the realms of Faërie. The journey does not guarantee adventure. The Hidden Folk, the Twylyth Teg, the Chyerti– regardless of their names, they can be benevolent in one moment and threatening the next. But whoever or whatever a mortal encounters in these perilous realms, they do not arrive home the same as when they left. Encountering the denizens of fairy tales changes a person forever. Whether that is for good or for ill depends upon the person.

Throughout The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, the first two books of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, we have watched Vasilisa Petrovna change from a little girl playing in the woods and offering bread to the strange creatures she found there to a young woman who has faced peril and survived it, but still doesn’t know what her place in the world is meant to be. She cannot stay in her childhood home, where the villagers would persecute her as a witch, any more than she can remain confined within her sister’s home where her culture dictates a woman of her rank should be. So while the bonds of family call to Vasya, she cannot remain in Moscow. After a devastating fire, the people are looking for a scapegoat and they place the blame squarely on Vasya’s shoulders. With no good choice before her and all roads leading certain death, Vasya escapes into the dark paths of the realm of Midnight where she will discover things about herself, her family, and the nature of her world.

I have loved Vasya and her world ever since I first read The Bear and the Nightingale two years ago. She is full of contradictions while remaining true to herself and her convictions. Her growth throughout the three books has been consistent and believable, culminating in The Winter of the Witch, where she becomes a fully realized adult capable of recognizing her mistakes and accepting their consequences. She also realizes that the world is not black and white; problems are not always solved because this side wins and the other loses. Life is more complicated than that.

Vasya’s is not the only story that comes full circle in The Winter of the Witch. Storylines begun in book one are concluded in book three, and if some of those endings are heartbreaking they are at least true to the story and its characters, although there are a few points I would have liked to see fleshed out a little more if only to solidify a particular character’s nature and their role in the story. But that is a minor flaw. Overall, Arden’s storytelling ability is miles ahead of many of her peers. The Winternight Trilogy is one of those that truly succeeds in its three-book format and doesn’t feel like it’s been stretched out to accommodate a publisher’s desire to cash in on a successful franchise. While there are three books with distinct plots, the Winternight Trilogy begins and ends a full story filled with fully realized characters, a rich and often haunting milieu, and elegant writing that depth and emotion without drawing attention to itself.

What sets Arden and the Winternight Trilogy apart from the glut of fairytale retellings available at every turn, though, is not Vasya or the medieval Russian setting. Arden clearly understands the language of fairytales. Not the princess stories of Disney, but the old, old tales our ancestors told their children by the hearth at night. Otherworldly stories that sought to explain the weirdness of nature and provide rules by which to navigate a world where the darkness pressed close and death lurked around every corner. This awareness of the language of fairy stories is not, I think, one that can be taught in any class. It is heard less by the ear and more by the heart, shining a light, however briefly, into the strange and perilous realms just beyond mortal sight.

The Winter of the Witch exceeded my already high expectations. It is at turns eerie and heartbreaking, and wondrous and strange. Vasya continues to be a heroine who is strong and filled with agency, without falling prey to the tired tropes that too many fantasy heroines are afflicted by. She shows that strength is more than the ability to wield a sword and that forging the path forward does not mean abandoning those you left behind.

If the Winternight Trilogy, her first major work, is a sign of what Katherine Arden is capable of, I look forward to seeing what stories she spins in the years to come.

 

My rating:
Five Stars

 


 

Thank you to Del Rey Books and NetGalley for providing a free, digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my opinion in any way.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Winter of the Witch

  1. Absolutely stunning review, Kim! I have only read The Bear and the Nightingale and now I am thrilled to continue the series. I agree with you – most fairy tale retellings take too much from our modern world and sensibilities, leaving the fae and their changeable mysteries in shadow. Can you think of other books which have a similar level of mystical agency provided to the mythical creatures included?

  2. Thank you! I love the fae that come out of the old world, who are eerie and changeable and completely otherworldly. Authors who approach the fae with that sort of weirdness would be Naomi Novik in Spinning Silver, Catherynne M. Valente with her Fairyland novels, Neil Gaiman in American Gods, The Sleeper and the Spindle, and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, and Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes, The October Country, From the Dust Returned, and certain stories out of The Illustrated Man. Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood may end up on that list, but I’ve only had a quick look into it so far.

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