This is the third and final volume in The Winternight Trilogy and boy what a journey it’s been. It’s difficult to write this review as I’m sad that this series has ended — but I’m so glad I went along for the ride.
Now it is difficult to review the final book in a series while completely avoiding spoilers for the prior books. So if you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, consider yourself warned, though I do try to make all my reviews as spoiler-free as possible. But still, this is not a book that you can read as a standalone novel.
The Winter of the Witch picks up right where the events of The Girl in the Tower left off: in the aftermath of a deadly fire that torched much of Moscow, and immediately, we hit the ground running. Vasya’s enemy, Father Konstantin Nikonvich, a priest who has lost his faith, has vowed vengeance on the girl and is able to incite the townspeople into a murderous rage, convincing them that she was responsible for the fire and that she’s a witch. Well, he wasn’t lying about the fire part — she actually was kind of responsible for that. So a frenzied mob storms Vasya’s courtyard, captures her, puts her in a cage and attempts to burn her to death as a witch. Exhausted and wracked with grief after having lost a dear friend, she manages to escape and is on the run, fleeing for her life.
Having left Moscow, she undertakes a perilous journey for her survival and the survival of her people, traveling into a strange and somewhat haunting otherworldly realm where nothing or nobody is as they seem. Along the way, she meets all manner of mythical creatures: a feisty mushroom king, a fierce old witch woman who holds a surprising secret, an unfriendly firebird, an angry river spirit, powerful gods/demons such as Lady Midnight whom Vasya isn’t quite sure are friends or foes and all manner of domovoi.
But what’s most interesting is that along the way, she uncovers long-buried secrets about her family history, her bloodline and her legacy helping her to finally understand who she really is. It also becomes evident to the reader that she is indeed a girl who is straddling two realms, both literally and figuratively, with ultimately the fate of both resting in her hands.
But no matter what obstacles are placed in front of her, Vasya finds a way to overcome them, intent on her main goals: to search out the only creature who can help her to save her cousin’s kingdom from the rapidly approaching Tartar armies and assist her in restoring balance after old and deadly enemy resurfaces and is intent on destroying Moscow. She also vows to help the chyerti (the blanket term for guardian spirits and creatures of Russian folklore) coexist with humans. But to accomplish her goals, she first has to make a drastic inescapable decision, a choice she’s not sure is the correct one.
This book is considerably darker than the other two. There’s a lot more danger, a lot more warring going on and beloved characters perish resulting in some heartbreaking scenes. But if it’s any consolation, some old friends return, also resulting in some emotionally intense scenes.
It was so much fun seeing Vasilisa Petrovna in this third book. She has grown incredibly since the first novel, both personally and magically. She is fierce, committed, and unapologetic — indeed a force to be reckoned with and can definitely hold her own against those who wish her harm.
Vasya comes into her own in this story as well as finally discovers the power that resides within her. But as is her custom, she makes more than her share of mistakes along the way, rendering her all the more human, all the more likable and all the more relatable. I love the fact that our heroine, as well as the secondary characters, are not black or white but all have their admirable qualities (even the villains…well, some of them) along with their flaws and faults.
It was heart-wrenching at times to watch Vasya as she desperately struggled to balance the real with the magical and the light with the dark, while figuring out how to convince her leaders, both human and folk spirits, that Christianity and chyerti can coexist.
Speaking of the secondary characters, they were amazingly well drawn and vividly rendered. Arden does an admirable job of getting into the heads and hearts of all of her characters, both the main ones and her secondary ones. More than that, she brings them all to life, allowing them to thrive and grow in their complexity.
The many magical creatures from folklore that played essential roles in all three books are utterly fascinating, sometimes dangerous, and always wondrous, and the author really brought them to life in this series. The character arcs take some very interesting twists and turns in the novel, especially those of the twins, Morozko the Frost Demon and Medved, the Chaos Demon in which we learn a lot more about them, their past and their motivation.
I found this book to be epic storytelling.
The Winter of the Witch was utterly bewitching and immersive with its larger than life dynamic characters, action-packed plot, and lush narrative. Once again, the author has expertly weaved together historical and fantastical elements to create a truly atmospheric story filled with magic, wonder, and hope. It’s a masterpiece of a book — a tale of a clever girl who manages to outwit men and devils alike. I also loved the powerful message about coexisting that Arden teaches in this book, a message that many may find especially resonant in today’s times.
This book had so many themes, messages and other compelling tidbits running throughout: religious zealotry, grief, madness, battle, death, chaos, an evil priest, a brave heroine, mythical creatures, good vs evil, human vs non-human, the bond of family and blood, the never-ending battle between the old ways and the new, madness, a touch of romance and at the end of the day, redemption. There’s definitely a lot going on here.
I’m often somewhat leery of reading the final book in a trilogy because oftentimes, I end up disappointed. Not this time. In the stunning conclusion, everything is resolved, all loose ends are tied up, including Vasya’s heritage, her place in her country, her place in the world, her relationship with Morozko, the conflict between Christianity and the chyerti, Morozko’s relationship with his brother and Vasya’s place in her family. I sobbed at the end — but in a good way.
After three amazing, books, I’m finding it a tad difficult to say goodbye to those characters that I’ve grown to love over hundreds of pages. The Winternight Trilogy is now one of my most beloved series, one that I no doubt will reread in the future. It certainly makes me want to delve deeper into and learn as much as possible about Russian Folklore and the Russian pantheon. It has also made me add Katherine Arden to my insta-buy author list.