Book Review: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Series: Book 3 of The Winternight Trilogy
Publisher: Del Rey (January 9, 2019)
Length: 384 pages
Reaching the end of a beloved series is always bittersweet, and sometimes you even put off reading the last book because you don’t want to say goodbye. But in the case of the Winternight trilogy, I was actually really looking forward to The Winter of the Witch because as we all know, endings can be hopeful too—a promise to the reader that the journey was worth it all.
The story finds Vasya in the aftermath of the great fire in Moscow—a fire she accidentally started when she unleashed a firebird to save the life of the Grand Prince. Now an angry mob has descended upon the home of her sister, led by the zealot Konstantin Nikonvich, a priest who has been obsessed with bringing down Vasya since the very beginning. Grieving for a lost friend and distraught over what she has done, our protagonist ends up being captured and is headed for the pyre to be burned as a witch when suddenly, fate intervenes in the form of the Bear demon Medved, who makes Vasya a tempting offer.
However, Vasya is her own woman and refuses to owe the demon any favors. Escaping on her own, she finds herself in the dreamlike realm known as Midnight, where she encounters all kinds of mystical creatures and figures, including her own great-grandmother Baba Yaga. After learning about herfamily history and magical bloodline, Vasya realizes just how much responsibility rests upon her shoulders, especially once she discovers what has become of Morozko, the Winter King, following his sacrifice on her behalf. The Bear has also found a way to create chaos, manipulating Konstantin to do his bidding. To save Moscow, as well as those she loves, Vasya must come to terms with who she is, and embrace her power in all its glory and dangers.
In this satisfying conclusion, we get to meet some familiar faces like Vasya’s sister Olga, who is dealing with her own grief, as well as her brother Sasha, who has come a long way since leaving home for the monastery—though he is still my favorite character. Vasya’s cousin Dmitrii, the Grand Prince, also has a part to play, as he begins to gather allies and prepare for the oncoming threat of invasion. In essence, we are pulling all the threads together in the lead-up to the Battle of Kulikovo, which marked a victory for Rus forces over the Tatars and is considered one of the major steps in formation of what is modern Russia. Katherine Arden blends history with fantasy, entwining medieval Russian politics with fairy tale and folklore to create something amazing here. For while the tensions simmer in the real world, an invisible war also rages among the supernatural beings of the enchanted lands, as Morozko and his brother Medved are locked in their own fierce battle.
This novel sees Vasya caught in the middle, in more ways than one. For one thing, she spends a good part of the story in the realm of Midnight, which should delight fans of the more fantastical elements of this series. This, however, was probably why I liked this volume a little less than the two previous ones; as much as I enjoy the magical aspects of Vasya’s journey, I always preferred it better when she was dealing with mortal conflicts. The one exception to this is her complex romance with Morozko. As Vasya struggles with her place between two worlds, she is also trying to work out her complicated feelings for the Winter King, whose purposes are often hidden but quite vast. As always, I love how the author treated their relationship with a subtle touch, so that it becomes neatly integrated into the novel’s larger themes of choices, sacrifice, and unity.
Like the two books that came before, this one had some slow-moving sections. However, Arden keeps things interesting with all the new things Vasya encounters in the spirit world. I confess some of these parts felt like filler, but there were also revelations that paved the way for bigger developments later on. The prose, too, is beautiful—Arden has clearly been honing her skills over the years, and her writing is now better than ever. Midnight would not have come to life the way it did had she not described the world and its denizens in such luscious detail.
All told, The Winter of the Witch is a worthy conclusion to a beautiful trilogy about changing times and growing up. It is not my favorite of the books, considering how strong the first two volumes were, but it did end with an epic climax and an emotional denouement which is sure to resonate with readers who have been with Vasya since the beginning. Katherine Arden has created something genuinely incredible here: an atmospheric and memorable saga full of imagination and heart.