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.
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.
There are seven wonders in the world, and this book is all of them.
The experience of reading The Winter of the Witch is something akin to being surrounded by magic. Yet, those are still such pale, passive words for what this story was. After the wonder and elation of reading this book and flying in so real-seeming a dream, I now feel such an obscure sense of loss, like something essential is inexplicably gone. A sudden absence, creating a space for the too bright, too sharp world to rush into. I reckon this will not be the last time I read this series—I shall return to it again and again, drawn to it by a wistful, melancholy longing for a life I never had, a nostalgia for a time I didn’t experience, and a desire to once again hold the characters’ hands.
The Winter of the Witch has leapt forward to claim the title of Best Book I’ve Read Yet This Year. And if there’s any series, at all, that you would pick up upon my recommendation, let it be this one.
So, what’s this book about?
Mosco is afire and the blaze carried with it all the certainty of death.
Vasya had thought that she knew every horror and was beyond surprise. But whatever spark had burned in her was no match for the terror she knew when her own people pursued vengeance upon her and tried to burn her at the stakes— their hatred lit lurid by the fire of Father Konstantin’s venom-laced words.
With darkness nipping at her heels and the trees whispering on every side, Vasya escapes by the thinnest of margins into the realm of Midnight where she could stay there where nothing outside could touch her, where her precarious, doomed existence is robbed of its sharp edges. But the dead are pouring into the streets of Mosco, held in the thrall of Medved, Morozko’s evil twin brother, and the Tartars are threatening to bring Rus’ to its knees. At the core of Vasya, rage and determination pulse up like the shock wave of a blast, ripping through her fear. Her loved ones need her. Mosco needs her. Rus’ needs her.
The shot-silk shimmer of hope blazes all at once. And Vasya’s will can and will blow the strongest door asunder.
“I am a witch,” said Vasya. Blood was running down her hand now, spoiling her grip. “I have plucked snowdrops at Midwinter, died at my own choosing, and wept for a nightingale. Now I am beyond prophecy.”
I love this book so dearly. My experience of reading it was of wanting to discuss every paragraph I consumed. I felt like a glass filled with splendor and awe. Every page was a treat and my mind was afire with marvel, the lit match setting off fuse after fuse. They are so many things I want to say about this book, they fall like confetti around my head and I struggle at deciding which ones to catch and which to let fall because all I want to do is celebrate the whole it makes without dimming the experience of coming to it fresh.
The Winter of the Witch is everything you want out of a Winternight novel. It’s a vivacious expansion that builds seamlessly and effortlessly on its predecessor. In language that strikes and caresses, Katherine Arden has written an absolute jewel of a novel where both concept and execution are so good that I resented having to spend time away from reading it. So much that now the absence of the story feels like a hook lodged inside my heart.
The darkness in this book takes on a wilder texture and an even deeper beauty; it floods your senses and presses around you like it has physical weight. Fear seeped into my marrow and danger was a constant fizz in my throat and stomach. I read with the gaze of someone who didn’t want to listen, but who had to, who must know the end to the story. Every page was like an ax blow passing close enough to graze the tips from the down of the characters’ cheeks, and I felt the narrow stroke of luck every time they’ve managed to flee, barely unscathed, from yet another peril. A particular event completely smote my heart and filled me with the sense that it was unraveling out of my body. It’s honestly as if Harden collects her readers’ tears for her charms or something!
Harden’s characters are vibrantly drawn figures who scarcely need a villain to bring their strengths and weaknesses to light since they do a perfect job of that themselves. Sasha, Olga and little Marya cut straight to my heart and I wished I could just send them an emotional boogie board to help them keep afloat. Medved’s and Konstantin’s characters are so riveting as well. I loved how Arden examines, interrogates, and endlessly probes at the tropes used to distinguish heroes, villains and the horrors they wrought. She puts her characters at a crossroads, where they stand facing each other. They’re foes, but they hold each other’s answers. You get such a tangible sense of the colliding emotion on both opposite sides, and with every page, your understanding sharpens, deepens, coming slowly and then all at once.
“There are no monsters in the world, and no saints. Only infinite shades woven into the same tapestry, light and dark. One man’s monster is another man’s beloved. The wise know that.”
Another aspect of this series that I immensely admired is how Arden handles with great deftness the theme of religion, by demonstrating how it can be a source for comfort and ease for some, and scathingly denouncing how others can be driven by their unquenchable lust for power to wield it to plant the seed of fear and hatred in people’s hearts, and sink their clawed hands into their minds.
Now, let’s talk about the absolute darling of my heart. Vasya!
Vasya’s character development is so masterly executed that the years that stretch between the first book and the last feel so far past, they feel like stories someone else had told me—half-remembered, blurred and unreal. I felt the sting of nostalgia for the savage exuberance of the child Vasya had been, the little girl who had always attacked the world, who wanted to see it but did not count the cost… before she learned the power of fear, before life had sapped her innocence and brought on a weary anger, before she discovered that the world was a perilous place for women like her.
There’s a tender spot in my heart that is abound with so much love and respect for Vasya. This young woman who had chased the marvelous doom that is freedom to the world’s end, whose heart looked upon life and death and things in between without faltering, who pushed through the cold sinking tangle of anger and dismay that her people have shown her and bore their burden in addition to her own. Gosh, I love her more than I can articulate. I’m still shaken by her temerity, by the way she was driven, not by hopelessness but just pure, unfettered stubbornness, not even so much a will to live as a refusal to die. There is so much ground Vasya had never felt under her hands and feet, there is the entire world, with all its wonders still unseen, and the thought of her not letting the world hold a place hidden from her will keep my heart warmed for many years to come.
“What happened? Love, betrayal, and time,” said Vasya. “What happens to anyone who grows to understand you, Medved? Living happens.”
But what makes the book truly sing—other than the mastery of plot and story structure, the characters and the luxurious prose that intricately entwines scenes from the natural world and the mythic one—is how it tramples on several minor and major tropes like a boss. The Winter of the Witch is a tremendous triumph on several fronts, but it’s the way the author insists on Vasya’s agency while also allowing her space to experience and navigate first love and intimacy is what latched onto my heart the most.
Morozko and Medved have painted in Vasya’s mind a picture that wraps her in a life she had never tasted or imagined…if only she’d give up everything else. Medved wanted to use her powers like a lighthouse lens, amplifying the intensity of his own gifts. Morozko wanted to protect her from the world, even the part of it that he represents, but Vasyas’s world is falling apart while his is continuing on a normal keel and they both know that this is the line past which his power can’t help her. “If I am mad, I will not be yours. And dead I will not be his,” she spoke that truth to the Bear and built her life around it.
Vasya can survive without the constant lifeboat of Morozko’s existence supporting her. So she tucked a little piece of his mind into a corner of hers, let go of the echo of a love she could not hold on to…and went on to do extraordinary fucking things.
I genuinely love Vasya and Morozko’s relationship so much. My wizened, hardened heart fractured at the knowledge that they were each other’s person, each other’s place, and how cold and sharp the irony was, because they couldn’t even be in the same place together. I waited two books and a half for their stolen moments in shadowed places where they could be alone, where they were free to kiss and touch and drown and live and burn. I’m not even being hyperbolic when I say that Chapter 17 had me aahh-ing, and ooh-ing, and sending texts in all caps and screaming in audios to my friend. This, folks, is how you goddamn write romance.
“Love is for those who know the griefs of time, for it goes hand in hand with loss. An eternity, so burdened, would be a torment. And yet—” He broke off, drew breath. “Yet what else to call it, this terror and this joy?”
Through three books and years upon years of magic and family and growth, this story has burrowed into my heart and wormed into my consciousness, refusing to surrender its place. Now all I can think about is how lucky we are to have this series in the world.