The Winter of the Witch: From golden firebird to Golden Horde, it’s all gold

Reposting to include Bill’s new review:

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine ArdenThe Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine ArdenMedieval Russia comes to life in Katherine Arden’s WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY, which began in Lesnaya Zemlya, a small village in northern Rus’ in The Bear and the Nightingale and continued in The Girl in the Tower. Vasilisa (Vasya) is a young woman with the rare ability to see and speak with the natural spirits or chyerti of the hearth, stables, and lands and waters of Rus’. Vasya has gained the attention and respect of the winter-king Morozko, god of death, who has helped her along the way as she fought and bound the demonic Bear, traveled from Lesnaya Zemlya to Moscow, and undertook a dangerous masquerade as a boy while fighting to protect Moscow and her family from both an evil sorcerer and the Mongol invaders.

The Winter of the Witch (2019) begins in the aftermath of a huge fire that burned much of Moscow. The distraught people of Moscow are whipped into a rage by Vasya’s nemesis, the priest Konstantin, who blames Vasya for the fire (with some justice). Vasya is captured by a mob and nearly burned to death as a witch. Though she escapes, a tragic loss leaves her reeling, and now a terrible price has been paid on her behalf. The Bear is on the loose again, pulling Konstantin into his plans for war and chaos, and Morozko has disappeared into some hidden prison. The vast Tatar armies, the Golden Horde, are still on the move against Moscow, and Vasya has perilous journeys to make through magical midnight lands as she tries to save her country and the humans and spirits that she loves. Vasya has gained in personal strength and magical power from her beginnings in the village of Lesnaya Zemlya, but she still makes some serious mistakes along the way.

In the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY, Arden has proved herself particularly adept at weaving together folklore and actual history. The Winter of the Witch focuses on the events leading up to the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, but puts a fantastical spin on it. As the country lurches toward war, Vasya is guided into the midnight realm of Polunochnitsa, or Lady Midnight, where she meets not only one of her ancestors ― a famous Russian folklore character in her own right ― but the mythical firebird, Pozhar (whose other form is a golden mare), and a delightfully opinionated mushroom spirit that Vasya called Ded Grib (Grandfather Mushroom). Pozhar and Ded Grib represent the high and the lowly among the chyerti, whom Vasya is trying to protect along with the humans who inhabit Russia. Even Medved, the fearsome Bear who played such a terrifying role in The Bear and the Nightingale, becomes more understandable and sympathetic, or at least much more entertaining as a character. It’s a nice reminder that even villains have some positive characteristics.

He spoke of Russia. Not of Muscovy, or Tver, or Vladimir, the principalities of the sons of Kiev, but of Russia itself, of its skies and its soil, its people and its pride.

She listened in rapt silence, eyes vast and filled like cups with shadow. “That is what we are fighting for,” said Sasha. “Not for Moscow, or even Dmitrii; not for the sake of any of her squabbling princes. But for the land that bore us, man and devil alike.”

Winternight Trilogy (3 Book Series) by Katherine ArdenThe tensions between Christianity and the old pagan ways, humans vs. chyerti, are ultimately resolved in a way that I hadn’t expected, but that I found profoundly moving, and Arden’s writing style is entrancing. The Winter of the Witch is not just the coming-of-age story of a girl with magical powers, or a romance, though it has both of those elements; it deals with larger themes, like love of country, individual worth, self-sacrifice, and cooperation with those who are different. The WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY was a wonderful series from beginning to end, and I give it my highest recommendation.

~Tadiana Jones


The Winter of the Witch by Katherine ArdenWinter of the Witch brings Katherine Arden’s WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY to a strong, bittersweet close in a memorable finale that seals the deal on this trilogy. Picking up shortly after the events of The Girl in the Tower (spoilers for both this and book one to follow), Arden both broadens the setting tapestry and heightens the stakes — just what you want in a concluding book.

Structurally, Winter of the Witch is really three different stories. In the first, Vasya has to deal with the repercussion of her nearly burning down Moscow (accidentally) when she freed the firehorse/firebird. Those consequences arrive in the form of an angry mob pounding on the gates of her sister’s compound, their fear and hatred fanned even higher by Father Konstantin. By the end of this scene, Vasya is nearly burned to death herself and Father Konstantin has made a pact with the devil (the Winter-King’s brother — Medved, “The Bear”). The second part of the narrative follows Vasya as she travels through Midnight, a “realm not made up of days or seasons, but midnights [where] you can cross the world in an instant so long as it is midnight where you are going.” And the last section has her return to the human world to intervene in the coming war between the Tatars and the Russians.

The first is a tense, claustrophobic tale, with people trapped behind gates, amidst a press of people, in a cage. It also serves to reintroduce all the major players and set up important plots/themes: Konstantin’s bargain with Medved, the distrust of the Russian people for the unseen world (and those who see it), the rising tension with the Tatars as Dmitri tries to avoid war, and the strength of women as well as their constraints, shown here mostly through Vasya’s sister Olga, who feels the weight of realizing how “when the world moved outside her walls, there was very little she could do. She was reduced to pleading; a princess with power enough to keep her family safe.” One of my favorite aspects of this series has been how Arden carves out a space for female strength without throwing wholly overboard the cultural constraints of the time, by either pretending they don’t exist or by having no consequences for flouting them (the “Hey, her feisty, ‘the hell with the rules’ attitude is really kinda charming, so let’s forget everything we’ve ever thought or done before!” mode of storytelling).

The second narrative becomes more traditionally fantastical as Vasya enters the Midnight realm and interacts with more of the magical creatures, the chyerti (including a great little “mushroom” one who lightens the tone but also shows us a wider spectrum beyond the “greater beings”); learns more about her own family’s past which involves an old woman, magic, twins, betrayal, mysterious births; and then goes on a quest to free the Winter King from a magical prison before the two try to turn the tables on his brother, the Bear, back in Moscow. The pace here is more leisurely and the language somewhat more lyrical, while the romantic elements are emphasized a bit more alongside the fantastical ones. It is in this section, as well, that the Bear is seen as more complex of a character, as when, for instance, he tells Vasya something she cannot sincerely dispute:

If men are unchecked, one day there will be no chyerti, no road through Midnight, no wonder in the world at all … Men fear what they do not understand … Men will suck all the wildness out of the world … They will burn you and all your kind.

Similarly, Vasya sees a different aspect of the Winter King in this section and starts to feel her way toward an incomplete understanding, more perhaps a vague sense, that things aren’t quite as simple as she had once thought.

That concept is given narrative body when the second section ends with the conflict with Medved and Konstantin seemingly resolved, but not the novel. In other words, “good” defeats “evil,” but “victory” does not end the tale. In the third section (and to be clear, these are my divisions, not Arden’s), Vasya’s inner complications are mirrored in both her actions while trying to forestall and then win the war, and in the greater political conflict itself. Everyone, seemingly, has to give up a simplistic view of their world if that world (the one of Rus) is to continue and not be made merely part of the Tatar empire. In this third section of Winter of the Witch, the mortal world and the chyerti interact most fully, with Vasya as the rope that binds them together, though one that threatens to unravel/break under the strain and torment of being pulled in two directions. Both her internal torment and the external action ramps up, with dramatic chase scenes, captures and escapes, floods and fires, all culminating in the climactic Battle of Kulikovo, a real-life battle that some point to as the beginning of a united Russia.

As Vasya fights for her country, and for the chyerti, she also fights for her place in the world as a girl growing into a woman. As mentioned earlier, Arden does an excellent job of handling this topic in a more mature, if less satisfying, fashion than many such stories. She also has some killer lines, all the more effective for their knife’s-edge brevity, as when she sharply tells one character, “You shouldn’t have told them I was a girl. Then they might have believed I was dangerous.” Or when she stands up to the Winter King for her right to desire, a right men take as their birthright: “yes, I want Dmitri’s admiration. I want a victory. I even want power, over princes and chyerti. I am allowed to want things, winter-king.” And I love that Arden does not end this with an exclamation point; this is no tantrum, no foot stomp — it’s a simple statement of should-be-obvious fact. Though here, again, Arden eschews the gratifyingly simple, as in the real world the wanting of things, and/or the gaining of them, does not come without a price. And thus, the appropriately bittersweet nature of this story by the end.

The WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY is an excellent series, staring out strong with The Bear and the Nightingale, but then improving on that promising start with The Girl in the Tower before wrapping it all up in an achingly satisfying conclusion with The Winter of the Witch. I look forward to seeing what Arden does next.

~Bill Capossere

Published in January 2019. Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen. Reviewers called Katherine Arden’s novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower “lyrical,” “emotionally stirring,” and “utterly bewitching.” The Winternight Trilogy introduced an unforgettable heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, a girl determined to forge her own path in a world that would rather lock her away. Her gifts and her courage have drawn the attention of Morozko, the winter-king, but it is too soon to know if this connection will prove a blessing or a curse. Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

SHARE:  Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail  FOLLOW:  Facebooktwittergoogle_plusrsstumblr
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

View all posts by

BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

View all posts by

10 comments

  1. She has created such a beautiful and moving series here, and I’m glad to read that the third book makes it all worthwhile. These are books I recommend a lot, especially to people who haven’t read fantasy before. The folkloric element makes it very accessible.

  2. Gah, I’m so behind on this series that I still haven’t read The Girl in the Tower! And now that I know how much you love the ending, I’ll have to work extra-hard to get myself caught up.

  3. You need to read these ASAP, Jana! I actually liked the second and third books better than the first one, and the ending of the third book was amazing.

    • Any book that includes Grandfather Mushroom is golden in my eyes.

      • Were you already familiar with Grandfather Mushroom, Jana? If so I’m seriously impressed! Arden comments in the glossary at the end of the book that he’s a shout-out to an older Soviet film called Morozko.

        • I didn’t realize that was the case! (In case you’re curious about the movie, it was re-titled Jack Frost for the English-language dub, and it is a hilarious/charming mess that I absolutely adore.)

          • Yep, that’s the film. Too funny! You’ll have to let me know if Grandfather Mushroon’s personality is true to the film.

  4. I love this trilogy! Has anyone read Arden’s YA novel, “Small Spaces”? It’s very good!

    Am I allowed to post the link to my review of “The Winter of the Witch” here?

  5. Fee Roberts /

    I’m reading The Winter of the Witch now. I love Katherine Arden’s writing. I can’t wait to see what else she comes up with.

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *