A three minute jaunt into your local bookstore will reveal a plethora of books detailing the lives of young, magically gifted girls, but no author marches her gifted protagonist through trials (and oppressive Russian winters) like Katherine Arden. From the beginning of her Winternight trilogy, Vasilisa Petrovna has been constantly bombarded with tragedy, and Arden’s conclusion, The Winter of the Witch, is no different. Quite literally burned, battered and cursed with broken ribs, Vasilisa has been thrust into the public spotlight. And contrary to the previous entries in the trilogy, she cannot escape the dangerous attention of men and chyerti this time around.
Finding a place to live in the world of Orthodox Russia has been difficult for Vasilisa, and her final quest for power and responsibility is marked with copious opposition. Even after emerging victorious over each foe she has encountered, Vasilisa must endure Bruce Willis in Die Hard-levels of abuse to reach her goals, with little to no reprieve. Seemingly in pace with her injuries, Vasilisa also exponentially expands in power, adding several spheres of power to her magical portfolio. Many of these tricks and explosive flashes come with particularly satisfying payoffs.
The Russian language can confuse Anglophone readers (looking at you, Doctor Zhivago), so Arden has added in several detailed notes about Russian names and a glossary of terms to help the unfamiliar. With a fluid incorporation of Russian diminutives and references, Arden wonderfully blends Russian culture into her novel. Conversations are brought to life in a realistic and relatable fashion, even when half the participants are devilish fey creatures.
Arden also embraces another commonly Russian trait in her writing: stoicism. Arden’s entire cadre of fictional actors constantly shrug off the weight of the horrors they bear, pushing themselves to a new edge. There is no commentary on the value of ignoring grief, no celebration of their grit. Just an acknowledgement of humanity’s inevitable tendency to ignore the wounds we incur, physical or otherwise. But when a character does, eventually, break down, they find themselves comforted, allowed to mourn. This respect for grief is rare, and well written in The Winter of the Witch. Seeing characters agonize over their past scars brings a true depth to even the most vile among them. While understanding a tragic backstory can help a reader sympathize, seeing a person or character truly suffer invokes empathy (even within my cold, dead heart).
To readers of the previous books, there is no spoiler in revealing that the end is not perfectly happy. Arden does go out of her way to wrap nearly every loose end the series has set up, and therein lies my only criticism. Arden writes the mystical and mysterious forces of her fey world well, and keeps the reader engaged with its mysteries. But in answering almost every possible question I could have had, Arden removes that mysticism from the setting. Some readers may find they like a tidy ending, but for a book fraught with sacrifice and cost at every turn, I would have liked to see an ending just as messy.
However, The Winter of the Witch was a fantastic way to end my literary year (as this reviewer read it in the last weeks of 2018), and I would highly recommend it. Arden explores the line between paganism and Christianity in a way that lends respect and power to each, which is especially amplified in her impressive final installment of the trilogy. Vasilisa is a heroine worth rooting for and her final story is just as impressive.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Katherine Arden about The Winter of the Witch.