The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Although The Girl in the Tower ends on what seems like a restful note simply because Vasya and her brother and sister are sitting together, disaster immediately ensues in The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden. The people of Moscow have survived the fire started by the magical golden horse/firebird Vasya released, but they want justice after because Father Konstantine stirs them up. Always a tool for evil, Father Konstantine acts in God’s name but is uncertain God even listens to him. He’s so angry that he convinces a small mob to immolate Vasya, calling her a witch.

Just as she’s about to die in a cage atop a pile of kindling, Vasya receives help from a most unexpected source, a source that teaches her how to use magic by simply changing the way she thinks about reality. From there, Arden takes readers into a new realm called Midnight, which warps time and place. If Vasya isn’t careful, she’ll never return to Moscow on the right day to help her brother Sasha, sister Olga, or niece Marya — a burgeoning witch herself.

Arden’s use of setting is masterfully done. It’s circa 1380 in what will become Russia. At the time, small landlords and princes occupy their own domains, and The Grand Prince of Moscow is featured heavily in The Winter of the Witch because two of Vasya’s siblings live in Moscow. But the Tartars want payment or they will go to war with these royal families of small kingdoms. Arden bases her setting and people on history, giving the plot a realistic hitching post to which she ties her magical realm: Midnight.

Midnight is described as a place where it is always midnight, so the sun never shines. There is a lake, and when one walks around it, the seasons change noticeably. As Vasya travels, slippery mud may turn into frozen ground or crunchy leaves. And of course there are small demons there to taunt, assist, and even try to kill her. Each creature is uniquely done, from the small mushroom spirit to the lake-dwelling creature eager to drown Vasya. Other horses like Solovey (a name that means Nightingale) and the golden horse/firebird live in Midnight, changing from horses to their bird counterparts. Wisely, none of the horses Vasya meets have the same personality, which would be unforgiving given some of the major plot points around Solovey.

Next to the lake is a witch’s hut where Vasya learns about her lineage beyond her grandmother and understands where her personality and magical abilities come from. Although her background isn’t the focus of The Winter of the Witch, it allows Arden to explain her fascinating protagonist and tie in more folk tales from Russia, including that of the Baba Yaga and Chernomor.

And though her history is full of magic, Vasya still isn’t the unstoppable hero we see in many tales of teen girls. She has to use all of her resources, even though unexpected, to help her brother Sasha and the Grand Prince hold back the Tartars before they destroy Moscow, where Vasya’s sister and niece live. Vasya also has to learn which resources she can’t rely on because she demands it. The battle between Christian worship and paganism still exists in this story, and Vasya has to reconcile her love of a demon and her wish to protect Christians in Moscow. If she helps Christianity prevail, will the demons she’s attended her whole life be forgotten and vanish?

Never one for war stories, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the final battle, noticing fantastic details about demons shape-shifting and snuffling the air like animals, men dead on the field with their glassy eyes open, and even the winter king himself visiting to carry away the dead. Arden truly makes readers consider what it means to want something for themselves, what it means to take joy in the suffering of others who have done them wrong. When does chaos become madness? When does chaos mean simply change?

When Katherine Arden visited my virtual book club, she mentioned that the three novels were originally envisioned as one book. I can see why she wanted that; each story builds off the previous with no gaps in time. As my group talked about each book, I found myself forgetting in which novel each thing happened because it’s all a continuous plot. As I mentioned in my review of The Bear and The Nightingale, you can stop after the first novel and feel fine. You could also stop after The Girl in the Tower. But to read all three is to get the full experience with a satisfactory ending and further development of beloved (and not so beloved!) characters.

20 comments

  1. Although I am not going to continue with the series and read these follow-on books, I like your comment about Vasya not being an unstoppable hero. I’m currently reading The Ten Thousand Doors of January with the Sword and Laser online book club, and the central character in that comes across as pretty passive, especially to start with. One of the other readers commented that he found she gives up too easily and was finding the book hard to get through, but I disagree – I get a bit tired of the stock “strong female character” teenage girl, and it sounds like Vasya is far from a stock character.

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    • Though I didn’t read the books, I know the stories about all these teen girls who take on an entire system of government of way of life. It’s exhausting. As powerful as I found the high school students who fought for gun rights in Florida after Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was shot up, as a group, with the eyes of the country on them, they were not able to enact meaningful gun reform.

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  2. Perhaps its my Canadian-ness, but I sort of feel a kinship to Russia, and I’m always fascinated by their folklore, which is another reason why the first book in this trilogy interested me. I’m actually reading a work of historical fiction right now, A Russian Sister, and I’m once again reminded of how tough Russian women are!!! Super powers or not, they are strong!

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    • In my head, Canada is totally the “good twin” of Russia (simply because you Canadians don’t have a shirtless, horse-riding dictator). They’re both full of such wild lands in which people do not belong, but also fantastic cities full of culture and wonderful people.

      I looked up A Russian Sister and was pleased to learn it’s a novel about Russian people written be a Canadian author (likely why you are reading it), so apparently she sees a connection between the countries, too. It seems there is a connection between A Russian Sister and Chekhov’s The Seagull. That would intimidate me, as my Russian classics knowledge is zero.

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  3. Ooh, that’s really interesting that this trilogy was originally imagined as a single book. One of my pet peeves with series is a time gap between books- I want to know what happens in those missing moments! Each volume starting where the last left off highly appeals. And in that case, I’ll definitely want to read all three together; I’ll have to set aside the time for it this winter because they really sound too good to miss out on any longer! I’m so glad to see you enjoyed all of these books.

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    • Oh, yes. The snowy parts are the most common in this series. In fact, when summer rolled around, it was not only shorter, but I wanted it to end faster to read more about the Winter King. I think you’d enjoy these novels.

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  4. I really like the point you make about Vasya not being the stereotypical “unstoppable hero,” but rather someone who has to figure out how to make the most of her resources. I think that’s much more relatable, and also sends a much healthier message to young readers!

    And I normally don’t like war scenes (in movies or in books) either – so the fact that this one is well-executed is definitely a huge plus!

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    • I will do pretty much anything to avoid watching a war movie. Ugh. I hate the way movies skew actual war battles and the people in them for a more emotional, patriotic punch. Good storytelling, yes, but then Americans will take war movies as fact.

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      • Absolutely! The more I learn about history OUTSIDE OF what we were taught in school, the more I see those types of movies almost like nationalist brainwashing (brainwashing may be too strong of a word, but I can’t think of a milder word that conveys something similar).

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        • Maybe not brainwashing, but more like revising. I know that most children have heard of Dr. King and I have a dream, but have no clue who Malcolm X was because he was so demonized in the media. You get into sticky topics, you have to pick gum out your hair.

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  5. I loved loved loved the way this series ended and how Midnight worked. I will certainly reread this series at some point both to refresh the details and also look into how the story is put together when ye already know what is going to happen.
    x The Captain

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    • I wondered how it would be different to read The Bear and The Nightingale again knowing more about who The Bear is. He’s such a mystery at first, and I didn’t know his name until the second book.

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  6. The fact that this was originally envisioned as a single book makes me slightly more interested to read the whole series. It sounds like it really covers a lot more than what we see in the first book.

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    • The world, both magical and historical, expands exponentially as the books continue. It’s cool how you can just read the first novel and be done, but you’ll get so much more if you keep going. There’s a part of me that wishes the trilogy was sold as one book, but I know that marketing something the size of War and Peace would be hard in the 21st century.

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    • I would recommend reading them back to back. The author wrote Vasya’s story as one book, and then it was divided into three by her editor or publisher, I can’t remember which. Each one picks up right where the previous left off. Thanks for the compliment 🙂

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  7. I read the first one, and felt so betrayed that the story just abruptly cut out – the pacing as a standalone didn’t work for me, and there were too many loose threads. There was nothing on the book anywhere to indicate it was part of a trilogy, and I was so annoyed that I never picked the other two up. Maybe I will. It sounds like Arden pulled off one continuous story?

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    • The Girl in the Tower picks up RIGHT where The Bear ends off, and The Winter of the Witch picks up right where The Girl picks up. Katherine Arden came to our virtual book club and explained that she wrote all three together as one novel, but was asked to break them apart.

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