Once upon a time, fairy tales and myths were the stories that ruled our lives. Before the written word birthed the popular novel; before technology birthed radio, the multiplex, and the Netflix binge; before the internet shrank the world and magnified all the problems within it, stories shared from person to person gave us the frame upon which stretched our life’s canvas. These were more than just stories: before the ascendency of science, gods and monsters ruled, and we paid tribute to them with offerings in order to keep their magic and goodwill on our side.
Katherine Arden’s stunning Winternight Trilogy, which began with The Bear and the Nightingale, continued in The Girl in the Tower, and now concludes with The Winter of the Witch, brings that time of simmering magic to life once more. But once again, this is no simple fairy tale: taken as a whole, the trilogy is both an allegory and a warning, reminding modern readers to recall the wonder and beauty of our world, even amidst the clamor of hate and fear that drowns our morden lives.
Vasilisa has grown from child to woman across the course of the trilogy, and as The Winter of the Witch opens, she is 17 years old, and on the run. Moscow has burned, and though she may have had a hand that calamity, her actions also saved the city. Her most ardent enemy, Konstantin, a man of the cloth who lacks faith in God—and who can, like her, see the chyerti, the guardian spirits that he calls demons—is obsessed with Vasya, tirelessly seeking vengeance. As the novel begins, he stirs up the people against her, killing her most beloved companion in the process, and she is taken and burned at the stake as a witch.
It’s a dramatic beginning, to say the least, for what becomes an epic tale of love, death, war, and peace.
As has been a hallmark of the series, here Arden’s inclusion of historical detail gives weight to her finely crafted folktale. She makes fine use of the historical fact of the war between medieval Rus’ various principalities and the invading Tatars. Dmitrii Ivanovich, Grand Prince of Moscow in the late 14th century, is most well known in history for being the first to unite the principalities of Rus against the Golden Horde, and it is against this backdrop that Arden’s tale is told.
Arden deftly weaves elements of fantasy into this framework—enchanting and mysterious magic—as well as a tale of Orthodox Christianity’s battle against paganism, as the chyerti are fading as the people’s belief in them fades. It’s Vasya’s blood who can wake them once more, and her spirit that can unite them with humankind, and in this final volume, Vasya dives far deeper into magical realms than ever before. And she does it all on her own (this trilogy has been, in many ways, a story of her becoming), even as the Winter King watches from the shadows, and the Bear returns, though not in a way you’d expect, and other beings of major and minor magical significance gather around her as she seeks to both ensure their presence in th world and save her family and her people.
Happily, for a trilogy-ender, The Winter of the Witch is Arden’s crowning achievement, and I’m sorry to see this story reach its end. But with a talent for magic herself, whatever the next adventure the author takes us on will surely be just as bold, and as full of grace.
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