Book review: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Warning: this review may contain spoilers for The Bear and the Nightingale, and The Girl in the Tower

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It feels a little bit weird writing this review. After all, the first book in this series – The Bear and the Nightingale – was my first book review for my blog and one of my top books of 2018. This series, sadly, comes to an end with the third and final book of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy: The Winter of the Witch. It is a powerful, exciting and at times heart-wrenching end that lives up to the extremely high standards of the previous books in the series.

The story picks up straight where the previous book in the series – The Girl in the Tower – left off. Half of Moscow has been destroyed by fire and the Grand Prince has narrowly survived assassination by the Tatars, leaving the people seeking someone to blame their misfortune on. Now Vasya, our plucky heroine and young ‘witch’, must flee for her life from the vengeful mob, only to discover that a powerful and old enemy has returned to sow chaos amongst the realms of men. Unable to abandon her family, she must finally come to terms with her powers and forge alliances between the worlds of man and the spirits that haunt the lands.

In many ways, this book feels like a merging of the previous two books in the series, with loose ends from both books being tied up and characters from both books making appearances. In no way is this blending of the previous books more obvious than with the pacing of this book. The Bear and the Nightingale was slow a slowly building fire and incredibly atmospheric with the book feeling almost like a siege. The Girl in the Tower, on the other hand, was much faster, with a lot more going on. This book finds itself somewhere in between, though the first chapters – as Vasya desperately fights to escape Moscow, the mob and Father Konstantin – are all action as they tie up and finale the plot of The Girl in the Tower.

One character I particularly enjoyed seeing back in the forefront was Father Konstantin. His return, after a relatively quiet time in the second book, was a real highlight as he is such a great villain. The fragile combination of his own ego, his growing feelings of abandonment by God and his hatred and lust for Vasya lead him down a dark path of despicable choices. It is these flaws that make him such a great character as he feels so human compared to the powers of Medved (The Bear) or the sorcerer, Kasyan. He truly believes that Vasya is the cause of his and Russia’s ills, that he is doing the right thing. I suppose it should be said that I have always enjoyed a good baddie though; Vader is one my favourite Star Wars characters, ditto Gollum for the Lord of the Rings. A good villain really can make a story!

A whole host of other characters from the previous books make appearances throughout the story as well. Special shout outs go to Midnight, one of my favourite chyerti, and Sasha, Vasya’s older brother. We also get to see Olga, Vasya’s older sister, once more in this book, but, unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to actually do much. Perhaps her lack of action and real power is meant to serve as a cautionary tale of how Vasya will end up if society wins and forces her to conform to their expectations? I mentioned this in my review for The Girl in the Tower and feel like it still stands.

Aside from returning characters, we also get some new ones. My personal favourite is Ded Gib, a mushroom Chyerti. He is adorable and funny in equal measure! I don’t even like mushrooms but I loved this little guy. His pride at Vasya as she grows and develops on throughout the book simply leaps off the page.

Speaking of Vasya’s development, this book really brings her character arc full circle. No longer is she a little girl, scared and confused by the world – as she was in the first book – nor is she stubborn and inflexible to the point of stupidity – as she seemed at times in The Girl in the Tower – but she is a wily, fierce and loyal and has learnt from her adventures in the past two books.  She also finally begins to understand her powers, which have been teased throughout the two previous books. I really enjoyed seeing her begin to develop and use these magic powers and how it was done in this book, as I feel like I’ve been waiting for her to bust these out since The Bear and the Nightingale!

There is, however, one part of Vasya’s story arc which I am still struggling to get my head around. I mentioned it in the review for The Girl in the Tower (it wasn’t really present in the first book, though looking back with hindsight, it was certainly hinted at) and that is Vasya’s and Morozko’s relationship. For me, it feels a little forced. Really though, this is my only complaint in the whole series and I know other readers really love it.

One final thing. I mentioned in my review of The Bear and the Nightingale, how I really enjoyed the clash of cultures between the old pagan ways and the rising power of Christianity in Russia and this has consistently been one of my favourite parts of the series, and this is equally true in this book. Though, the story arc in this book more focuses on how the two belief systems melded together and their place alongside each other.

Over all, I just can’t recommend this book enough, though, of course you should read the two previous books first; you may get a little confused, otherwise. I think that this book makes an excellent conclusion to the series and that Katherine Arden has told a truly magical tale over the course of the three books that is a wonderful blend of history and fairy-tale. Definitely don’t miss this one!

8 thoughts on “Book review: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

  1. I love this book so much. Though my only complaint would be I wish we got more of an epilogue and some pagetime with other Vasya’s siblings – they kinda dropped off the radar after the first book.

    Liked by 1 person

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