“I have plucked snowdrops at Midwinter, died at my own choosing, and wept for a nightingale. Now I am beyond prophecy.”
The last in a series are hard books to get right. More fail than not. So, I was certainly apprehensive about reading the last book of a trilogy I had loved until then. But, as it turned out, I shouldn’t have been. Katherine Arden nails it with The Winter of the Witch.
In the book preceding this, Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna has accidentally caused the destruction of a large part of the city of Moscow by releasing the mythical firebird; she has weakened Morozko, the Winter-King, by asking for his help; her cover as a boy is shattered; and now the crowd, led by her old arch-nemesis, Father Konstantin Nikonovich, wants her to pay for what she did (and for being a witch).
This final installment, unlike the last two, immediately thrusts us into the middle of almost frenetic action and emotion. Almost like it is building on the characters and histories carefully created in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. There is a particularly brutal scene in the opening chapter among the many violent ones that follow which made me gasp, unbelieving, and then cry, when I knew there was no magical way out, but I was glad how organic the final solution turned out to be.
In terms of plot and stakes, this book has almost everything that you need, and I enjoyed the way it was structured, despite some patchy pace. Almost like three separate but linked novellas. There is the classical hero’s journey that Vasya undertakes in the magical realm of Midnight to claim the magic rightfully hers, then the quest that follows to vanquish an old and dangerous enemy, before it all culminates in a battle that has Vasya forging alliances and doing things she never thought herself possible, and though she achieves her objective, the price is too high.
Though dark and unflinchingly violent, there is enough light and humour, there is the infinitely wise, porridge-loving, talking horse in Solovey, there is the deepening of her relationships with her siblings Olga and Sasha, niece Marya, even cousin Dmitrii, Moscow’s Crown Prince, there are new friendships with a feisty but endearing mushroom chyert that Vasya calls Ded Grib (Grandfather Mushroom) and Pozhar, the firebird. There is also, of course, the complicated, flawed Father Konstantin, who continues to battle with demons, real and personal, and is an excellent example of a well-rounded negative character who elicits, if not sympathy, then, at least, an unstoppable curiosity.
The message at the heart of the book, and the trilogy at large, is that seemingly oppositional elements can co-exist – old gods and new, chyerti and Christianity, but also oppositional parts of the same person – must co-exist if any are to survive… and Vasya is the bridge straddling these two realms and beliefs; the chosen one because of the blood that runs through her from her mother’s line. Witch, princess, warrior. An inescapable legacy that she must shoulder even if she has not known about it for the longest time.
“It was never your task to pick out the good from the wicked. Your task was to unite us. We are one people.”
Vasya is an empowering character and it’s a pleasure to continue reading about the journey of her personal growth which unsurprisingly comes to a head in The Winter of the Witch. This is the book she finally learns to accept herself, each conflicting piece that goes into making her who she is, and in the process is unapologetic in wielding and desiring the power that is her birth right. Vasya, admittedly, doesn’t always make the right choices and is still very impetuous, but she is the perfect heroine of this lyrical saga inspired by Russian folklore.
“I have been running through the dark, trying to save all who have need of me. I have done good and I have done evil, but I am neither. I am only myself. You will not make me ashamed…”
And, of course, there is her and the enigmatic Morozko. In this book, their passionate, electric, but complex relationship finally gets the development the first two books laid the foundation for. What I really appreciated was how realistic, mature, and sensitive it was in its portrayal (as realistic as the romance between a teenage witch and an immortal Winter King can be!), how both met here as equals than the previous imbalance, and how Arden weaves their time together within the larger narrative of Vasya’s coming of age.
The author’s experience with and knowledge of Russia and Russian history, language, and culture is also clearly evident, and she doesn’t sacrifice essential facts for more drama. For example, Vasya’s struggle to break the shackles of tradition imprisoning women in the 14th century includes the depiction of the harsh realities of such rebellion. The author writes powerful women characters by showing that power and strength can come in different forms and intensities, without passing judgement on or isolating them or others unlike them.
Then, there is Arden’s instinct of what history to take creative license with. In the third part of the book, the culminating battle against the Tatars is based on the actual Battle of Kulikovo, which according to many historians was the turning point in the formation of modern-day Russia. These historical facts are seamlessly blended with the involvement of characters from the Winternight trilogy, giving it a poignant perspective that kept me reading late into the night.
“He spoke of Russia. Not of Muscovy, or Tver, or Vladimir, the principalities of the sons of Kiev, but of Russia itself, of its skies and its soil, its people and its pride.”
“That is what we are fighting for. Not for Moscow, or even Dmitrii; not for the sake of any of her squabbling princes. But for the land that bore us, man and devil alike.”
The true sense of unity that Sasha speaks of feels also like a metaphor for this book, Arden uniting the themes of the first two (the magical, fantastical elements, and the political, cultural and social landscape) to create a saga in the best sense of the word. All the loose ends may tie up somewhat neatly at the end, but, to me, the books have earned that right, Vasya has earned that right.
Definitely a series I see myself rereading!
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