The Witch and the Winter King: Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch

After having accidentally burned down part of Moscow, Vasya now finds herself at the center of a literal witch trial. The people blame her for the destruction and death, but their hatred is fanned by the sadistic Father Konstantine and his snake-in-the-Garden-of-Eden tongue. If he can’t have her, no one will. She escapes by the skin of her teeth into the realm of Midnight, a magical patchwork land made of every midnight past, present, and future. There she could stay and hide away from the violence of the real world, but doing so would surely be a death sentence for her family. Medved, Morozko’s twin brother, is loose in Moscow and wreaking havoc on the weary city and an army of Tartars threatening Rus’ borders grows bigger by the day.

To save her family Vasya must save Moscow. To save Moscow she must save Rus’. And to save Rus’ she must put her own life on the line. But when you’re stuck in the middle of a war between two political states, another between religion and folklore, and a third between ancient brothers, saving the world is easier said than done. Compromises must be made, oaths sworn to old enemies, and treaties shattered with close allies.

Everything Vasya holds dear is under threat, and choices she made as a child come back to haunt her as a young woman. No longer is she the scared, reckless little girl playing in her father’s woods, and she will make sure those who refuse to acknowledge her newfound maturity will suffer for their denial. Only Vasya can set the course of the future, yet she may not be strong enough to see it through.

The Winter of the Witch feels a bit like three novellas in one. There’s the story of how Vasya deals with a bloodthirsty mob in Moscow, then comes her time traveling through Midnight and the related conflict between Morozko and Medved, and lastly the battle between the Russians and the Tartars. The first feels like the extended ending to The Girl in the Tower (the second book in the Winternight Trilogy) the second is the resolution to the two-book saga of the brothers of summer and winter, and the third wraps up the whole trilogy in a tidy bow.

That’s not to say the third book feels scattered or disconnected from the first two. Quite the opposite, in fact. However, the segmented structure does throw off the pacing. Time jumps erratically, moving from the tail end of winter to the high heat of summer and back to first snowfall, skipping weeks at a time only to suddenly grind through each hour of a single day. Mostly this is due to the restrictions of history and mythology. Vasya’s journey is leading up to the Battle of Kulikovo in September 1380, meanwhile Medved and Morozko’s powers are tied to their seasons.

If anything, The Winter of the Witch demonstrates how well this series would work as a television show on a cable channel or streaming site. It’s a vast world teeming with fascinating and frightening men and monsters. The settings, historical era, and characters beg for a big budget and luxurious production design. Think Game of Thrones but with flying horses, death gods, and mushroom spirits instead of dragons.

The only thing I didn’t love was how Vasya is the fulcrum around which more powerful men revolve. She is either uninterested in the skewed power dynamics or unperturbed by them. Vasya forges her own path, but does so by binding her fate to four male characters (seven if you count the villains and a hench-boyar). As the plot advances, the choices she makes are largely driven by protecting or punishing the various men in her life.

It’s the men of the series who set the course of the plots and push Vasya into action. And it’s the men who drive the final confrontation reep the rewards of victory. She teaches men how to be better than what they are, and she is the one who must sacrifice the most. There are other powerful women in the novel, but only one wields anywhere close to as much influence over the plot as the men and her role is mostly confined to magically assisting Vasya and her brother.

Arden writes crisply and evocatively, with a harsh sense of urgency seeping through the lines. Where the first two novels felt more like retellings of a single fairy tale, here Arden bursts open a Pandora’s box of Russian folklore. Chyerti and witches infuse the novel. Rus’ and the world of magic get the expansive worldbuilding lacking in the previous books (although, frustratingly, there are still no Q/POC).

Reading The Winter of the Witch was a huge challenge not because it was poorly written (it most certainly was not) but because it was so hard to put down. It only took me a few days to finish, largely because I read well into the night. The cliffhangers were too enticing and the action too compelling to put down. The whole series is like that, really. For those with the time and inclination, the Winternight Trilogy is best experienced by reading all three books back to back, preferably over a long weekend spent curled up on the couch with a cup of tea and a fluffy blanket.

Brimming with magic and myth, The Winter of the Witch, is the perfect conclusion to Katherine Arden’s lush series. As effervescent as it is foreboding, this is a series that will be on recommendation lists for years to come.

The Winter of the Witch is available from Del Rey.

Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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