The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is a wonderful, magical read and the perfect conclusion to Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy which combines Russian fairy tales, history and folklore with an atmospheric and wintry medieval setting. I loved the previous two books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, so I went into this one with high hopes and high expectations – and I’m happy to say that I thought it was the best of the three. You may be wondering whether it’s necessary to read the books in order; my answer would be yes, as I think you will definitely get more out of the story if you start at the beginning.

As the novel opens, Moscow is on fire and blame has fallen on Vasilisa Petrovna. With a furious mob calling for her to be burned as a witch, Vasya manages to escape with the help of the magical beings only she and one or two others can see. However, her freedom comes at a cost and, as part of the bargain, an evil spirit is unleashed into the world once more. This could have serious implications for Vasya’s cousin, Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, who is already facing the threat of the Tatar commander Mamai and his Golden Horde. As the Tatars advance into the land of Rus’, Vasya must enlist the help of the chyerti – her demon friends and enemies – in a final attempt to save her family, her country and its people.

Like the first two books, The Winter of the Witch is steeped in Russian mythology and fairy tale. In this book we are reacquainted with characters who appeared earlier in the trilogy and we meet another selection of fascinating beings from Russian myths too. These include the upyr (monstrous vampire-like creatures) and the famous Baba Yaga. Of the other new characters, I was particularly fond of Ded Grib – but will leave you to discover more about him for yourself when you read the book! Vasya also follows a magical pathway through the enchanted realm of Midnight, a journey which provides some of the most thrilling moments in the book. My favourite of the novel’s many threads, though, involves Vasya’s romance with a certain frost demon called Morozko…

The reason I find the relationship between Vasya and Morozko so compelling is precisely because it’s completely unconventional. Morozko is not human and doesn’t always react or behave like a human; to him, Vasya’s actions sometimes seem illogical and difficult to understand – yet they love each other for who they are, and each accepts whatever the other is willing and able to give.

Another aspect of the book (of all three books, actually) that I like is the theme of conflict between old and new as the ancient beliefs and traditions are swept aside by the spread of Christianity. We have seen from the beginning of the trilogy how the power of the chyerti is fading as the people forget the old ways, turning away from their household spirits such as the domovoi and turning instead to men like Konstantin, the Christian priest with whom it is safe to say Vasya has never seen eye to eye. Vasya’s task in this novel is to persuade everyone – chyerti and human, Christian and pagan – to work together to defend Rus’. It will all come to a head at Kulikovo on the Don River, as the opposing armies prepare for a battle which will prove whether or not our heroine has been successful…

This really is a great end to the trilogy; the beautiful, powerful writing took me through a whole range of emotions and I had tears in my eyes at the loss of a favourite character early in the book. I also love the fact that, despite all the fantasy elements, so much of the story has its foundations in Russian history. I’m sorry to have to leave Vasya and her friends behind, but I will look forward to whatever Katherine Arden writes next.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

I enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale when I read it almost exactly a year ago and I remember my excitement on discovering that it was actually the first in a planned trilogy. We haven’t had to wait too long for the second book, The Girl in the Tower, and I’m pleased to say that I loved it even more than the first.

Katherine Arden’s books are a wonderful mixture of history, folklore and fairytales with an atmospheric and wintry Russian setting. If you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale yet, I would highly recommend starting with that one – and I should warn you that there may be spoilers for the first book in the rest of this post.

At the beginning of The Girl in the Tower, our heroine Vasilisa Petrovna (Vasya) is fleeing her childhood village of Lesnaya Zemlya. Despite her efforts to rescue the villagers from a great evil, the way in which her father and stepmother died has caused Vasya to be branded a witch, regarded with suspicion and distrust. Accompanied by her magnificent stallion Solovey, Vasya sets off on a journey across northern Rus’ to Moscow, home of her sister Olga – a journey which will be filled with danger as Vasya encounters a group of bandits sweeping across the countryside burning villages and kidnapping children. First, though, she must pay a visit to Morozko, the frost-demon, in his fir-grove deep in the forest…

This novel has a much wider geographical scope than the previous one, in which the action takes place almost entirely in and around Lesnaya Zemlya. I liked this aspect of the book; medieval Moscow is an interesting setting and, with Olga’s family close to the Grand Prince, Dmitrii Ivanovich, we are given some insights into the political situation during this period of Russian history. At the time of the story, the Rus’, as it was known then, is still part of the domain of the Great Khan and the Golden Horde, but with their influence weakening as the Grand Prince grows in power, it seems that things could be about to change.

I was also pleased to see Vasya reunited with her siblings, not just Olga but also their brother Sasha, who is now a priest. Sadly, her relationships with both Olga and Sasha are very strained, partly because of what happened in Lesnaya Zemlya, for which Vasya is unable to give an adequate explanation, and also because of her behaviour on arriving in Moscow, which they consider unladylike and inappropriate. To the modern reader, Vasya is a wonderful character – brave, independent and rebellious – but her refusal to conform to the 14th century ideal of what a woman should be leads her into a great deal of trouble. In contrast, Olga has accepted her place in society and expects her young daughter, Marya, to follow the same course in life. Marya, though, appears to have other ideas!

I’ve said very little so far about the fantasy elements of the novel. We don’t see very much of the household spirits who played such an important part in The Bear and the Nightingale, but there are some appearances by intriguing new figures from Russian myth including the Firebird – and another, more sinister, character whose name I won’t give here so as not to spoil anything! I also enjoyed Vasya’s interactions with her magical horse, Solovey, who has begun to form a personality of his own. Last, but certainly not least, there’s Morozko, frost-demon and god of the dead.

There were hints in the previous book of a possible romance between Vasya and Morozko, and in this book their relationship is developed further. It’s definitely not a conventional love story and because of who Morozko is and the role he has to play in Russian folklore, he has a tendency to come and go throughout the novel. It’s frustrating but it worked for me and I found myself looking forward to the scenes they shared. I loved The Girl in the Tower – and the good news is that the third book in the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, is expected this August!

Thanks to Ebury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing the word ‘the’ used twice.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

the-bear-and-the-nightingale I was drawn to this book first by the cover – and then by the mention of Russian fairy tales and folklore. It seemed a little bit different from the usual books I read and I hoped it would prove to be an enchanting, magical read, perfect for the winter months.

The story is set in the 14th century in Lesnaya Zemlya, a village in northern Rus’.  The village is home to Pyotr Vladimirovich who, since losing his beloved wife in childbirth several years earlier, has lived alone with his five children and their elderly nurse, Dunya. The youngest child, Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known), is becoming wild and rebellious and it is partly because of the need to provide a mother figure for her that Pyotr decides to marry again. Unfortunately, though, his new wife – Anna – turns out to be a wicked stepmother who dislikes and distrusts Vasya and believes she can see demons hiding all over the house.

Vasya, who has inherited special abilities from her mother, can also see Anna’s ‘demons’, but she knows that they are not evil spirits – they are household guardians watching over the people of Lesnaya Zemlya. When Father Konstantin arrives in the village, believing he is on a mission from God to stamp out the old traditions and beliefs, the powers of the household spirits begin to fade. Harvests start to fail, winters seem colder and harder than ever before and the evil forces that lurk in the forest grow stronger. Can Vasya find a way to protect her family and restore happiness and prosperity to the village?

The Bear and the Nightingale is a story steeped in Russian myth, legend and fairy tale. Although I loved fairy tales as a child, I seem to have missed out on most of the Russian ones, but that wasn’t a problem at all – and I was surprised to discover how much I was actually familiar with. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the story of Frost which Dunya is telling the children as the novel opens:

“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.

Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows.”

Frost, or Morozko to give him his Russian name, is an important presence throughout the whole novel, although he only appears to the characters on a few occasions and we are made to wait until near the end of the book before his true significance becomes clear. Other aspects of the story are slow to unfold too – such as the role of the Bear and Nightingale of the title – which is why I’m not going to say any more about the plot or the characters, even though I would love to! I would prefer to leave some of the novel’s secrets and surprises for you to discover for yourself.

What I will mention is the setting, which I loved. Most of the action takes place in and around Vasya’s village, with lots of vivid descriptions of the harsh living conditions and the bleak, relentless winter weather, but there are also a few sections set in Moscow at the court of the Grand Prince Ivan II. I have very little knowledge of 14th century Russia (or Rus’, as the region was known at that time) so I wasn’t sure how much of this was based on fact, but as this is historical fantasy I tried not to worry too much about that.  I was more interested in the portrayal of the conflict between the old ways and the new, the changing beliefs of the people and the loss of old traditions.

The Bear and the Nightingale is apparently the first in a trilogy – I hadn’t been aware of this when I first started to read, but on reaching the end of the book I was happy to discover that there will be another two and that the next one will take us away from the forests of Rus’ and into medieval Moscow. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for it as I’m looking forward to it already!

Thanks to the publisher Del Rey for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.