The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden made me gasp in horror, gasp in delight, gasp in suspense, and then gasp in satisfaction. Frankly, there was a lot of gasping, which is how you know it’s a good story. That, and the lack of sleep.
In The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya and Morozko—a girl who can See and the God of Winter and Death—work together to resist the God of Chaos and see him bound.
In The Girl in the Tower, Vasya goes to Moscow disguised as a boy, but Morozko is never far behind. Which is good, because enemies from afar (the Tartars) and those closer to home are moving against Vasya and her people.
The Winter of the Witch finds Vasya in danger yet again. While her unknown powers saved the city, the people are superstitious and unforgiving. In an effort to save her from death, Morozko makes a grim bargain with a dangerous power. Now Vasya must rescue him in return, find a way for humans and Chyerti to coexist, and save her family and the Rus from the Tartars.
The Winter of the Witch was immensely satisfying.
Arden does an incredible job at developing Vasya’s character. In the first book she’s a wild child who knows only what she doesn’t want: to be a wife or a nun. With the help of Morozko, she catches a glimpse into another future. In the second book she beings to understand her own strength and power. By the end of this book, she steps fully into her roll as witch and woman.
Morozko changes as well. He starts out as a cold, emotionless god, but his association with Vasya changes him, turns him a little bit more human. Morozko, the God of Death and Winter, is compelling; a Morozko with humanity is dangerously irresistible. I’m a bit in love with him, really.
And what can I say about Sasha? He was barely in the first book, but he became a fixture in the second and then in the third. I loved his loyalty to family and country, his nobility, and especially his flaws.
Konstantin has been a thorn in Vasya’s side from the beginning. His journey has been one of the most fascinating of all, which is really all I can say without giving anything away.
I adore the way Arden wove Russian lore and history together. I’m not sure any other writer could have worked Chyerti and Tartars so seamlessly into the same book, as if they were meant to be whispered about in the same breath. The way everything culminated in an actual battle, the one that’s rumored to have been the start of Russia, was perfect. Arden tied everything neatly up. Oh, not too neatly. There’s room for wondering, but the big questions are answered and the rest are left up to the imagination.
I’ve been thinking about a way to describe Katherine Arden’s writing, about the poetry of this book and series. My words will be imperfect, but it reads like a winter fairytale feels. The language is timeless, classic. The narrative compelling, the characters entrancing.
This book takes a time when women only had two choices—marrying or taking vows—and charts another, more daring third course. It speaks to women of strength and power, emotionally and mentally. There’s the strength of love and compromise. There’s the strength of the old and the new, both traditional and new ideas. There’s the strength of family and country. There’s the strength of the protector for her people and the protected for her protector. This book doesn’t break down men to promote the strength in women or dismiss traditional values for a new and changing world; it accepts both. It makes you realize that you can have it all; that ideas needn’t be in conflict.
Just like this book breaks down the barrier between opposites, it also highlights the gray spaces between us:
“The wicked were not supposed to mourn, or to regret, or to have seen their silent God at last, in the steadfastness of another’s faith.”
“Love is for those who know the griefs of time, for it goes hand in hand with loss.”
“I have plucked snowdrops at Midwinter, died at my own choosing, and wept for a nightingale. Now I am beyond prophecy.”
The worst part of this book is that it’s over. You can’t say that for all books. Sometimes you’re reading a series, and you rejoice when it ends, and it’s not because you didn’t like it; it’s just because it’s past time for it to wrap up. A series should end when you’re still aching for more. I highly recommend this book and the entire Winternight Trilogy. It speaks of love and loyalty, to gods and monsters and family and country. It speaks of the power within tradition and the past; it speaks of hope for the future. It speaks of reconciling the old and the new, of living in that balance.