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.