When, almost two years ago, I picked up Katherine Arden’s first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, I inhaled its magic through several sleepless nights, restless and drunk on the finery of her prose.
Now, it remains no different. Her third and final book in the Winternight trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, bedrocks itself as a prime example of stories that are feminist, fantasy and fiction. There is an organic blush to her otherwise lurid ink that gives her universe its intoxicating reality: part order, part chaos — just as our lives and any lives worth reading are.
The story takes place after The Girl in the Tower and begins exactly where that last book left off. The undying Wizard, Kashchei, has crumbled to dust and most of the blazing fire enveloping Moscow has been doused. Our protagonist Vasya, having managed to survive the tumult, now lies scarred and singed, deep in the sorrow of the loss of her Winter King, Morozko, who is by now a faded apparition — or even less — in the air of Spring. But, despite it all, it seems at least that although things are not right and well, they are neither burning nor dark death. Our short-haired maiden can spare time to breathe.
A fitting and satisfying end to an epic trilogy of fantasy, feminism and magical prose
Or so, of course, we think.
Just a few pages in, we find the gates to Olga’s residence flanked by a mob, large and with torches burning, hungry to light a pyre for the witch — Vasya, they believe — as a recompense to the Lord God. It will be their redemption for the sins that brought them the red and black fire that swept through the wood-city of Moscow like a hot, viral illness. At the front of the mob is the priest Konstantin, with his ashen blonde hair and deep, prophetic voice, who is leading the upset villagers to seek vengeance on Vasya.
For himself, or for the people? That, we know.
The mob finally gets Vasya in their clutches. Her face dented and red, her body bleeding and bruised, her spirit trampled, she is taken to a cold and black room in a church. Here the bloodthirsty villagers build a cage of strong wood, place Vasya in it and set it on fire.
This is the beginning of The Winter of the Witch. It is a loud and violent crescendo that leaves no room or time to breathe. The rush is so alive and raging that it seems that Arden, in her sardonic pleasure, has written the entire series just so that it may lead to this introductory scene. I was worried if, after this, Arden would be able to write the remaining three-fourths of the novel in any manner similar. After all, now that she had pulled Chekhov’s gun, she would have to discard it.
But then the story exhales, slowly and cautiously, relaxing you into the lull of the progression. Vasya takes a prolonged stroll through the lands of Midnight; much of it is filled with meeting and walking and meeting some more — the tiny loveable mushroom Ded Grib, the golden mare Pozhar, the swamp creature Bagiennik — and although there are encounters, the fun doesn’t end when there are none. The shifting seasons and times are explained in the manner of some mystic, primordial custard and you’re always left wondering at the beauty of the lake, the red and ripe strawberries, the trek through the endless shadows.
That’s the thing great about Arden’s writing: when she pens action and violence, it crackles with energy, with the whiplash of an unbridled ascent. But then the story settles, relaxes into a casual fall like a descending bungee: the wind streams around your ears and your heart fills thick with liquid. There is no fire, no roar. But your chest contracts with excitement, regardless. Arden writes her descents just as she writes her climbs: with purpose.
Sasha stared, mouth full of words he could not say. Yesterday she won a horse race, saved your life, slew a wicked magician, set fire to Moscow and then saved it all in a single night. Do you think she will consent to disappear, for the price of a dowry — for any price? Do you know my sister? — Excerpt from the book
And the characters: all living and subsisting on large intakes of air, brandishing their swords, working odds to their own ends and — perhaps most importantly — growing through it all. Vasya’s brother Sasha, now confronted with the reality of his sister’s pursuits, is an ill-placed monk struggling with his own identity. Vasya’s sister Olga is mourning her daughter’s death and yet still manages to cement her authority within the plotline, even if it is from her cramped tower. Even Morozko — the Winter King, the frost demon, the one who exploited sacrificial maidens — becomes more flesh, less ice. Then there’s Konstantin. After his pitiful presence in the second book, he makes a strong comeback in a manner that is both eerie and so, so real with the betrayal of God and the acceptance of a devil. “There are no monsters…” Medved, the Bear from the first book, will say to him, although Konstantin will make you doubt the reassurance even as he accepts it himself.
The writer, journalist and academic Roy Peter Clark once wrote that a list of three elements implies finality. Arden’s Winternight Trilogy does the same. The first book traced Vasya’s internal fight in a small and localised space near her home. The second showed Vasya taking baby steps into the outside world, travelling on horseback and meeting princes. The third pushes Vasya into cross-country and cross-dimensional politics, making her fight for her love and own her magic.
It is a fitting end to an epic tale — satisfying, conclusive and not overstayed — a fresh and ambitious entry into the genre, proving that there are no limits to the lessons it can teach and the space that writers have left unexplored and unrealised. Arden’s work, I believe, should find itself part of any literature course at the secondary level in Pakistan, where stories of feminism and fantasy already are marginalised in the rubble left behind by academic politics. It is, at its best, a political statement and, at its least, a great story.
What more can one ask from a book?
The reviewer is a student at Lums with an interest in creative writing
The Winter of the Witch
By Katherine Arden
Del Rey, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 21st, 2019