What a barnstorming end to a trilogy this is. The Winter of the Witch is the final part of the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden, a bewitching at times bewildering combination of Russian history, folklore, magic and fantasy. It’s the sort of book with depths that reward re-reading, weaving connections with the first two books into a finale that is both satisfying and heart-wrenching.
These are books about fitting in, and not fitting in, of being different, and finding your own way in a complicated sometimes mystifying world. Arden sets her tale in medieval Russia, adds layers of magic and Russian myth, woven together with the true story of the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. She handles such a complex mixture with an assured, inspired hand. In my 2017 review of the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, I described it as ‘not an easy read, but rewarding’ and I repeat that again for The Winter of the Witch. You have to pay attention, make connections, take fictional leaps of imagination, but you are rewarded.
As Vasya’s magical powers grow, so do the dangers to the traditional ways of life in old ‘Rus. No longer a girl but a hardened fighter, a young woman determined to do what is right, but still not immune to doubt, indecision and to love. As she performs more magic she knows she is danger of losing her grip on real life, of descending into madness, but must decide whether to save herself or to save those she loves. Vasya is an inspiring heroine, throwing herself into adventures against the will and advice of those around her, finding allies in unexpected places and facing enemies with a brave heart. My favourite characters included Solovey, Vasya’s magnificent bay stallion, and Ded Grib, the tiny mushroom chyert.
Moscow is burning and Vasya is to be burnt at the stake as a witch. If she can escape, she must leave behind everyone and everything she loves. Meanwhile a dark priest in Moscow is evangelising the people against the old ways and the chyerti, the folklore spirits, while the Tatars are threatening war against ‘Rus. Grand Prince Dimitri must unite the Russian princes to defend their lives.
I’m sad to finish these books but now I will revisit them again, this time reading them back-to-back in the hope of understanding more of the complex layers of folklore. The world-building reminds me of Tolkien and Pullman in its depth and breadth.
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THE WINTER OF THE WITCH by @arden_katherine #bookreview via @SandraDanby