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“The Winter of the Witch” by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy concludes with The Winter of the Witch, in which Vasya finds herself responsible for protecting not just her family or village, or even the city of Moscow, but all of Rus’. As the stakes escalate, so does Vasya’s power, but Arden keeps her relatable by giving her corresponding doubts and fears. For all her command of magic and growing rapport with the chyerti, Vasya isn’t always sure of herself.

Nor should she be, since the Winternight books portray magic as a dangerous force. Contrary to the beliefs of some human characters, it isn’t fundamentally evil. But its use relies on the caster “forgetting that the world is other than as you willed it,” so frequent use of magic can blur the line between fantasy and reality. A witch or sorcerer can lose their grip on what’s real, becoming detached from the world around them. As the central conflict of the book ramps up, Vasya is forced to use more powerful magic more frequently, putting her at risk of such a disconnection from reality. This is a great way of making sure that Vasya can’t solve all her problems by just throwing ever-increasing amounts of magic at them.

One major aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed, as well as my one substantive criticism, rely on spoilers, so I’ll discuss those below. Overall, it will suffice to say that The Winter of the Witch doesn’t always go in the direction one expects, and it brings Vasya’s story to a satisfying conclusion.

 

–SPOILERS AHEAD—

 

Throughout the first two books, the Bear has been Vasya’s enemy, so I was genuinely surprised by her realization that her task was not to permanently defeat him, but to repair the rift between him and Morozko. This dovetails nicely with the larger theme of humans and chyerti working together to protect Rus’ from outside invasion. For all that Vasya is capable of battle-magic, her true role in the story is as a diplomat, negotiating bargains and bringing people together. This is a great way of differentiating her from other fantasy heroes, and it serves to make the story more multilayered and interesting.

I was a bit underwhelmed by the second revelation about her heritage. We’ve known since The Girl in the Tower that there was something special about her great-grandmother, but there weren’t any previous hints about her great-grandfather. It’s only in The Winter of the Witch that we hear anything about her being a “sea maiden,” and the eventual discovery of what that means felt shoehorned in at the very end of the story. It doesn’t help that this doesn’t seem to really have any effect on Vasya’s abilities or character development. It just fell completely flat to me and was the one flaw in an otherwise compelling story.

“The Girl in the Tower” by Katherine Arden

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The Girl in the Tower is the second book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. Having escaped from the Bear, but at the cost of her father’s life, Vasya (Vasilisa) flees her home. After taking shelter with Morozko for a time, she sets out to travel, wanting to see more of Rus and perhaps beyond. But when she comes across burned villages whose survivors tell of kidnapped children, she finds herself drawn into a plot that threatens not only her family, but her whole country.

The book gets off to a slow start but is really engaging once it picks up. We see Vasya’s brother Alexei and sister Olga again, and the relationship between Vasya and her siblings forms the emotional core of the book. In particular, there’s a focus on how her bond with the chyerti and with more powerful magical beings like Morozko strains her relationships with other humans. That tension helps to keep the story grounded, even as it introduces a couple of famous figures from Eastern European folklore. Vasya’s relationship to some of these people, human and otherwise, changes substantially at the climax of the novel, which sets up an interesting situation for the third and final installment.

One aspect of the story did bother me, but as it involves spoilers for a major plot point, I’ll discuss it below. Overall, I enjoyed The Girl in the Tower and am looking forward to seeing how Vasya’s journey resolves in The Winter of the Witch.

 

 

 

 

For a large part of the book, Vasya is disguising herself as a boy. While the bulky clothing worn by people during a Russian winter makes it easy for her to hide her feminine body shape, her long hair is another matter. She stuffs it under a hat, but inevitably the hat is lost during an incident that involves strenuous physical activity, and her gender is revealed. It seems to me that it would have been much smarter for her to simply cut her hair, and while Vasya can be impulsive, she’s never struck me as being so stupid or oblivious that the idea wouldn’t occur to her. Having her keep her hair felt like the author was handing her the Idiot Ball to facilitate the dramatic reveal.