Monday 4 March 2019

#CBR11 Book 5: "The Winter of the Witch" by Katherine Arden

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the third and final volume in the trilogy, and the action starts immediately after the second book. This is not the place to start. If you are not caught up, drop everything and start from the beginning with The Bear and the Nightingale

Vasilisa "Vasya" Petrovna managed to defeat one enemy, but at a great cost. Releasing the legendary firebird has caused much of Moscow to catch fire and the citizens, spurred on by the vengeful and jealous Father Konstantin are looking for a scapegoat. Vasya is dragged from the safety of her sister's home by an angry mob and accused of witchcraft. Suffering a great personal loss in the process, she is determined to protect those she loves from further harm, and goes along with the crazed crowd.

Yet it is not Vasya's fate to die in a fire on the outskirts of Moscow. In a desperate attempt to keep his beloved safe, the frost demon Morozko has made a deal with his demonic brother Medved and freed the giant bear, dooming himself in the process, all in order to keep Vasya from burning. However, no helpless damsel, Vasya finds unexpected reserves of her own and rescues herself, fleeing into the realm of the supernatural to heal up, figure out how to undo Morozko's bargain, save the people of Moscow from Father Konstantin's toxic influence and make sure no more harm come to her family. As if that were not enough for one young woman to carry on her shoulders, a war is looming and Vasya may be the only one who can stop it.

Our Vasya has come a long way from her rural upbringing in the Russian forest. Truly a worthy example of "what doesn't kill us, makes us stronger", Vasya is turning into a force to be reckoned with. She has learned a lot about herself and her heritage, and escaping Father Konstantin and the furious mob determined to end her leads her further down the path of her family history. Previously just accused of witchcraft because of her ability to see and communicate with the many hearth and nature spirits around, Vasya's several trials and tribulations appear to have actually made it possible for her to tap into magic. Now she just has to make sure it doesn't drive her utterly mad, which the demon bear Medved seems to be gleefully hoping for.

Not realising just how resourceful an individual Vasya actually is, he formed a foolish bargain with his formerly imprisoned brother to ensure her survival. It led to the chaos-hungry demonic entity being free to cause further mischief, primarily by causing plague to spread through Moscow and zombie-like vampires to roam the streets, only held back by the seemingly super powered Father Konstantin. Once Vasya heals up, she needs to locate the now imprisoned frost demon she has come to love, before figuring out how to stop Medved and Father Konstantin.

Her entire life, Vasya has seen how the modern world and especially the spread of Christianity seems to be threatening the adherence to the old ways, and the spirits and supernatural entities who have helped her throughout her life are fading away. With the Mongol army threatening to conquer Russia once and for all, High Prince Dimitri needs to unite his people against the external threat. He needs all the help he can get, and Vasya, along with the unusual allies she has acquired, can lend invaluable aid.

While I thought it had a slow start, I was amazed at how much the story of The Bear and the Nightingale stayed with me. The Girl in the Tower was an amazing second volume, expanding on the world building, history and folklore. My expectations for The Winter of the Witch were very high, but amazingly, this book managed to exceed them. I'm very far behind on my reviews, and finished this book more than a month and a half ago, yet the story has stayed with me, and I keep thinking about little details on and off, still marvelling at how well all the story strands were tied up and the trilogy was concluded.

The series is an amazing way to learn more about medieval Russian political and social history, mythology and folklore. as well as be thoroughly entertained. Vasya is such a complex and fascinating protagonist, and I love how Katherine Arden resists the temptation to populate her novels with one-sided character tropes. There are complex reasons for the antagonists acting the way they do, there is never simply good or evil, but a fascinating array of motivations. Vasya's stepmother, Father Konstantin, Medved - none of them are wholly irredeemable. The supporting cast are all excellent, which raises the stakes when the action becomes tense, as you don't want anything bad to happen to them either. Without saying too much, this book had me in tears very early on, after a gut punch of an event, showing just how much Arden makes you care for the various human and non-human characters in the story. I loved discovering more about Vasya's family history and seeing her reach her full potential, in full feminist glory, was so satisfying.

While this was one of the very first books I read this year, I'm going to be very surprised if it doesn't end up on my 'Best of' list of 2019. If you haven't read Arden's books yet, do yourself a favour and check them out - the trilogy is completed, so you can have so much satisfying story without any pesky waiting for the next book.

Judging a book by its cover: Having recently studied all three covers for the series quite carefully (the cover art is so gorgeous), I can't help but notice that the tone changes from dark to light over the course of the books. As our heroine, Vasya, grows and matures and properly comes into her own, the covers become brighter and lighter. The cover for The Bear and the Nightingale shows the darkened woods in the middle of winter. The Girl in the Tower shows the outskirts of Moscow at dusk, with the sky in reds and oranges from the setting sun. This depicts Vasilisa Petrovna alone, yet unafraid, facing an army, with the firebird lighting up the sky ahead of her. I can't imagine these choices aren't deliberate. With each book, despite all the harrowing and horrible things that happen to Vasya along the way, her future gets brighter and more open.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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