The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

This is a review of book #3 in the Winternight Trilogy, so there’s spoilers for the first two books. If you’re looking to get into the series, check out Hiu’s review of book 1! I received an ARC of this book from the publishing company Random House in exchange for a fair and honest review.

At last, we reach the conclusion of this Slavic-folklore-inspired series. These books grew to mean a lot to me as a Russian-speaking Slavic emigrant, and I’m so thrilled that the conclusion remains just as wonderful!

The Winter of the Witch picks up right where The Girl in the Tower ended, dealing with the fall-out from that book’s climax. (Vasya accidentally set Moscow on fire, remember?) The city’s inhabitants, goaded by the priest Konstantin, crave bloody retribution. And Konstantin is not the only enemy: the Tatars must also be appeased, and Vasya’s old foe Medved has reared his head… As both inner and outer tensions threaten Rus’, Vasya must figure out how to bring peace to her land — and whether she even wants to.

All in all, I found this book more similar to the second than the first. There is again more emphasis on action and plot than atmosphere, although the prose of course remains as lovely as ever. My favourite prose passages this time around were about Rus’ itself. The way the characters described their attachment to their homeland reminded me a lot of how it would be put in Russian, which I really loved.

On the other hand, similarly to the first book, the magical elements are once more at the heart of the story. The chyerti are back. There’s the Big Guys of course, like Morozko and Lady Midnight, but I particularly enjoyed all the appearances of the house, tree, river, mushroom(!!), etc spirits. Vasya’s powers, which have continued to blossom throughout the trilogy, also take centre stage. The magic here is my favourite type: wild and lacking complex rules, but with the looming threat of a heavy toll.

Another great aspect was Vasya’s relationship with all her family: her siblings, her niece, her cousin, and others. It’s pretty rare for a fantasy book to focus on (positive) family relationships rather than friendships! While romance plays a larger role than before, Vasya remains motivated just as much by her familial ties as her romantic ones. I got especially invested in Vasya and her siblings remaining on good terms even when they didn’t fully understand or agree with each other’s actions. (Also, her siblings’ reaction to her romantic escapades was endlessly hilarious to me.)

There’s a lot of “I don’t agree but I do understand” tensions in general. Everybody is doing what they think is best for their people, whether that’s the chyerti and the priests, or Morozko and the Bear, or the Russians and the Tatars. This causes conflict, of course, but nobody is demonised for it. I really enjoyed Vasya, who’s always been a bit of a hothead, having to figure out how to mediate between everyone.

My only quibbles with the book were very minor. As I said, I grew to care deeply for Vasya’s family, and I think it’s a real shame we didn’t see some of them more! With the ending being a little abrupt, this series is just crying out for an extra short story “epilogue” (hint hint, pleeeease?). Also, I don’t know whether this’ll change for the final version, but the ARC’s glossary has severe spoilers!! (Some of the spoilers are historical spoilers, by the way, so uh just don’t Google any of the characters either.)

One final thing I’d like to touch on is “authenticity”. The topic of authors writing outside of their culture is coming to be discussed more often. I personally am uncomfortable with the Winternight Trilogy being called either “very Russian” or “not Russian enough” (usually by non-Russians). What I can say, as a Russian speaker who grew up on these fairytales, is that I really, really appreciate the myriad “Easter eggs” Arden peppers in. To be honest, I cracked up a lot reading these books. In every chapter there’ll be a reference to one of Pushkin’s poems or some fairytale, or a translated saying or phrase. All of it feels like a friendly little nod between Arden and the subset of her readers who are In The Know. I don’t know if this is “authenticity”, but I do know that it made me exceedingly happy.

Altogether, I found Winter of the Witch an absolutely marvellous wintery read and I’m extremely excited for everyone else to read it too!


And now for the fun SPOILERY part. I’d like to present a collection of random Easter eggs/things that made me laugh:

  • Alenushka and the little goat (the story Vasya doesn’t tell Masha): This was the first bit where I cracked up — I’ve never seen a non-Russian mention this fairytale (it’s not glamorous like Baba Yaga or Kaschei). Here it is in full.
  • Vasya’s lake with an oak-tree: There’s probably only one poem every Russian-speaker vaguely knows and it goes “By the shore of the sea stands a green oak tree/ Upon the tree is a golden chain/ And day and night a learned cat/ Walks around and around on that chain/ Uhhh blablabla something about a rusalka in a tree/ Blablabla umm anyway it ends with/ There it smells of Rus’!” The association is so strong I ended up indignant that there was no cat — unless… is Vasya the cat? I haven’t found a translation I really love yet, but here’s several attempts.Lukomorie-1024x734
  • Vasya’s love of mushrooms: Mushroom picking is just one of those weird national hobbies (second in popularity only to Renovating Apartment).
  • The ‘cousins’: I spent way too long trying to figure out what word Vasya would use to refer to Dmitrii in Russian. ‘Kuzen’ is etymologically French, ‘dvoyurodniy brat’ is clunky as heck. The point’s moot because she wouldn’t be speaking Modern Russian anyway but eh. Maybe it would just be ‘brat’/’brother’.
  • The Vodianoy: Arden describes them so majestically, but I always picture them as a certain cartoon version, the one with the song “I’m a vodianoi, I’m a vodianoi, why doesn’t anyone wanna hang out with moi??” I’M SORRYhqdefault
  • Like I said, there’s a lot of sayings and phrases translated literally from Russian. “Three times nine realms” is a standard fairytale phrase; “unclean powers” = what is usually called “black magic” in English; the usage of “soil” where English would usually put “land”; “spend [them] like water” is a slightly more figurative translation; etc. Even the witches and evil sorcerers meeting in the banya at midnight has some actual folklore roots!
  • The chapter title Enemy at the Gate made me laugh.
  • The Medved smelling Russian blood: If Baba Yaga walks into her home and there’s an Ivan or Vasilisa hiding in there, she’s gotta shout some variation of “UGH! There was a time when you never smelled or saw Russian scent/spirit, but nowadays Russian scent sits down on a spoon and rolls into your mouth.” She has a fine nose.
  • Chernomor: There’s two Chernomors in Pushkin’s poems, an evil one who steals princesses and a badass who lives under the sea with 33 warrior-nephews and is also an uncle to the Swan-Princess. Sooo I’m going to assume Vasya is related to the second, sea-dwelling one. Here’s the whole story/poem.
  • Edit (10/01/19): Sharade just started the book and I just realised there’s one thing that reads completely differently when you get the references. The last chapter is called Water of Death, Water of Life. Reading this book, I knew someone was going to be brought back to life. Whether it would be Solovey, Vasya, or someone else, whether there’d be a toll to pay, that stuff I didn’t know. But I basically knew, when Solovey died, that either he’d be brought back or someone even dearer to Vasya’s heart (if that’s possible) would be. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing to know, but it certainly means my reading experience differed from my friends’!
  • Aaand there’s a lot more but the list’s getting long! What did you guys note?

6 comments

  1. Absolutely loved the trilogy!

    So happy to find your review, I speak a fair bit of Russian myself and grew up in Eastern Europe, so the fairytales/mythology/history are fairly well known.

    Liked by 2 people

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