Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy came to a close last month with the publication of The Winter of the Witch. One could call this book a retelling of Russian fairy tales, which would be innaccurate. This third book in her trilogy about Russia features plotlines that brings in all kinds of fun fantasy elements to a breathtaking Russian landscape. By taking her audience into unknown to them, Arden has written the most exciting young adult fantasy trilogy in years.
Gosh, where do I even start with these books? Instead of a Chosen One who follows a prophecy, Arden presents Vasya, a teenage girl living on a manor in medieval Russia, who can see chyerti, which are like if fairies lived in lakes, trees, rivers, ovens, mushrooms, stables – just everywhere. Fairies – Arden uses the alternate term, “devils” – all over the place. Most humans cannot see them, but Vasya is descended from a fairy woman who married a prince of Moscow like a hundred years before this story began. Also, Vasya can ride horses really well and understand their speech. Vasya rides astride her trusty Solovey, a sarcastic and powerful bay stallion given to her by her love interest, the Winter King, Morozko. Morozko acts as a grim reaper sometimes, but sometimes he’s like Jack Frost where he controls snow and ice. Vasya and Morozko have been trying to stop a figure called Medved (Russian for The Bear, which he also goes by) from raising an army of zombies and sowing chaos throughout Moscow and the surrounding lands. Medved appears in visions to people and plays off of general bigotry and fanaticism in order to sow chaos. Morozko controls winter, Medved controls the summer season (because bears sleep during the winter), and they continually fight one another, Dark Lord vs. Noble King, but it’s confusing because the Grim Reaper is the good side.
In the last two books, Vasya has grown from a small child to a young woman in a society where women don’t have any of the rights that men do, and usually get locked in towers having babies until they die young. Vasya does not want this to happen to her. Additionally, the chyerti stop existing as fewer and fewer people worship their native pagan religions. The biggest rival comes from Russian Orthodox Christianity. Jewish people don’t get mentioned and Islam hasn’t gotten far enough north, though one wonders how the chyerti feel about the Buddhists among the Mongol-Tatars who exort the Grand Prince of Moscow whenever they can. Medved convinces Christians, in particular, a priest named Father Konstantin, that Vasya must be possessed or a witch since she can talk to chyerti. Vasya frustrates The Man’s efforts to put her down by running off into the forest and training in magic with Morozko and Baba Yaga, but she loves her fellow human beings so she makes a stand against Medved to save her family in Moscow.
Here the story dovetails into history. Moscow isn’t the capital of Russia yet. It’s just a city in the middle of medieval nowhere that regularly pays tribute to an emperor all the way off in Mongolia so his army doesn’t burn their town to the ground. The Winter of the Witch manages to surf bildungsroman down through the stories of chyerti as well as Vasya’s romance with Morozko, and stick its landing at the battle of Kulikovo, an actual battle that signified the first time the Rus’ princes fought together in one army, and really the beginning of the Russian nation. Vasya’s brother, Alexander Peresvet, and her cousin, Dmitriy, the Grand Prince of Moscow, really did fight at the battle of Kulikovo. Keeping some historical details in her story, has really lead me down into this magical world that Arden built. And boy, does it work. Everything about the medieval world of the Rus blends vibrantly with the fantasy elements described above. Getting into Vasya’s beautiful medieval world is as easy and immersive as falling into a pool of water.
As thorough and believable as the world is, sometimes the sheer drama of the landscape spills over into melodrama of the characters. In the first book, Medved drives the mostly pagan village of Lesnaya Zamyla (where Vasya grew up) into chaos pretty easily. He also seems to have little trouble convincing Moscow that Vasya is the villain, even though Vasya saves the Muscovites time and time again. We never hear from Vasya’s brother who still lives in that village again, which minorly disappoints. More urgently, in a world with several powerfully magical chyerti, keeping track of who has which power can be a little bit of a chore and it’s completely frustrating when somebody like Morozko announces that their power doesn’t work in highly specific situations. More than once, Vasya vents her frustrations with the spirits for not revealing their powers or being vague about their intentions, which feels a little too self-aware, but without any humor. The rich world provides us with a catalogue of Slavic folklore mainstays – Morozko, Baba Yaga, even Kaschei – but sometimes doesn’t pause to let us enjoy them.
Overall, these books earn their place on library and bookshelves. Vasya fills a niche that few other heroines can approach. The skillful weaving of fantasy and history provides a lovely background and introduces American readers to brand new vistas. Muhc Vasya’s magic, however, the setting can become labyrinthine. Still, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for TV/film adapatations – or better yet, more series set in the world of the medieval Rus.
Favorite quote: “They mounted their horses together, and wheeled and galloped back to the battle, on the breast of a newborn storm.”
Page Count: 373
Three out of five stars.