Book Reviews

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch

Title: The Winter of the Witch
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Mythology, Historical Fiction

What It’s About: In the aftermath of the fire, Moscow is destroyed, and Grand Prince Dmitrii and Sasha try to decide how to help the people recover. Meanwhile, Konstantin whips the people of Moscow into a frenzy with his silver tongue and blaming Vasya for the fire. They show up at Olga’s estate, and Vasya attempts to escape from her sister’s home in order to protect them, only to be caught by the mob. Konstantin kills her beloved, magical horse, Solovey, as the mob beats Vasya, and commands her to beg for her life. Vasya refuses, and calls for Morozko, begging him to let her go with Solovey, but Morozko tells her that she must live, as Konstantin and the mob drag her off to a cage within a funeral pyre. She manages to escape from the pyre by using her magic, and is horrified to find Medved (the Bear) who killed her father before he was locked away. Medved tells her he came to save her after Morozko traded his own freedom to release him. Then Olga’s servant, Varvara (who looks over Marya) sends Vasya into a realm called Midnight where Medved expects Vasya to die.

Sasha finds out about Vasya’s execution at the hands of Konstantin and convinces Dmitrii to arrest the priest; however, not wanting to cause a riot, Dmitrii speaks to Konstantin instead. Konstantin tells him that Vasya is the one who started the fire, and Sasha is unable to reveal that she was the one who called in the snow to stop the fire as well, without revealing that she is a witch. Prince Vladimir, Olga’s husband, arrives with news that the Tatars are raising an army and demanding payment to stop them from attacking Moscow. Dmitrii sends Konstantin away, and tells Sasha that he has to regain his trust, so he sends him to find Father Sergei. Meanwhile, Lady Midnight–who had shown herself to Vasya three times in her journey to and around Moscow–tells Medved that Vasya had survived in Midnight, and both she and the remaining chyteri are trying to decide which side to fight for.

Vasya maske up in Midnight, and Lady Midnight tells her she will have to find safety on her own at the lake, so Vasya walks as far as she can, meeting many chyteri along the way, including the golden mare that was the firebird that devastated Moscow. She follows the horse, Pozhar, to an abandoned home by a lake, where Vasya wakes up the domovaya, who in turn cleans Vasya’s wounds and lets her rest. The domovaya then sends Vasya into the forest to gather food, where she meets a mushroom named Deb Grab and a Bannik in the lake who tells her that the chyteri are watching her. While stuck at the lake, Vasya also finds Pozhar and Medved, who asks Vasya to join him and tells her that she does not owe Moscow anything. Vasya rejects his offer, and he goes to attack her, only to be intercepted by an old woman, Baba Yaga, who Vasya recognizes is her great-grandmother. Baba Yaga tends to Pozhar’s wounds and tells Vasya to stay and learn her powers, but when Vasya says she wants to find Morozko and save both worlds, Baba Yaga sends her away.

Vasya then asks Pozhar to lead her to Morozko’s horse as the two horses have a strong connection, and Pozhar agrees as long as Vasya does not ride her. Along the route, they come across a camp of men that the river-king is attempting to drown, and Vasya manages to save the leader before learning from the river-king that Medved told him to wash away the silver. As she leaves, she realizes that she saved Vladimir and the silver that was washed away was meant to placate Mamai, the Tatar leader. Vasya returns to Pozhar and Deb Grib so that they can continue on.

Pozhar calls to Voron, Lady Midnight’s horse, to leave them alone which annoys Lady Midnight, but at the same time she is impressed to learn that Vasya is looking for Morozko, not because of love, but because Vasya believes that he is the only one who can help her. As a result, Lady Midnight leads Vasya to Morozko’s prison–a town trapped in an endless night, and Vasya goes in alone. She then realizes that Morozko is trapped in a younger memory of himself with no recollection of her, so she intervenes when he tries to take a woman and they get into a fight. Morozko cuts her wrist, and remembers her enough to carry her to a bathhouse and heal her. Once there, they kiss and he tells her that he did not want her to die, and the two share an intimate night. Reluctantly, the next morning Morozko agrees to accompany Vasya to the summer Moscow, and together they decide that they need to find the golden bridle that bound Pozhar to Kasyan.

As Vasya and Morozko head back to Moscow, Medved uses Konstantin to spread the plague and raise a bigger undead army to take Moscow. The two of them come across Father Sergei and Sasha, who is hesitant to accept Morozko’s help, but Sergei believes that they must all work together and they all head to Moscow. Lady Midday attempts to kill Sergei, but Morozko saves him by cooling everyone down with his power, and they hurry into Moscow. Unfortunately, Dmitrii imprisons Sasha, while Vasya is forced to run home after Medved fights Morozko. With Olga’s help, Vasya sneaks into the Grand Palace to find the golden bridle; however, she panics when Konstantin sees her and runs to the treasure room. As guards arrive, she summons a thunderstorm and Morozko, an act that shocks them both, but he works to pull her back from the madness that comes with the powers she has, and she finds the bridle. She rushes to find Medved, but Konstantin kidnaps Olga and demands that Vasya turns herself in. An army of the dead arrives, but Sergei arrives as well and dispels the army of the dead on faith alone. This shatters Konstantin’s mental state as he believed God did not exist and he kills himself to weaken Medved so that Vasya could bind him with the golden bridle. Morozko takes Medved away while Dmitrii asks for their help on the impending Tatar invasion.

During the meeting with Dmitrii, Vasya promises that she and Sasha will find Vladimir and return him to Dmitrii before the battle. Morozko also meets Olga, who hesitantly gives Vasya and Morozko her blessing, and Vasya proclaims her love to him as he heads to his realm, but refuses to go with him due to Moscow being at risk. She then travels with Sasha through Midnight, only to find a Lady Midnight who is disappointed with her for reasons unknown and betrays them both by sending them into the Tatar’s camp. Sasha is tortured for information by the Tatars, while Vasya convinces Oleg, one of Dmitrii’s Princes, that she can free his family but if she does, he must fight for Dmitrii. Ultimately, she uses her magic to escape her bonds, finds Sasha, and they attempt to leave together only to be chased down by Chelubey. Sasha sacrifices himself so Vasya can get away on Pozhar.

Back in Midnight, Vasya finds the Bear and convinces him to make an oath with her, serving her and keeping from causing chaos in the human world on his own, in exchange for his freedom. Lady Midnight arrives and tells Vasya that she needs to understand that she cannot choose what is good and evil. Vasya in turn demands that Lady Midnight makes an oath, and she does. Then with Pozhar and Medved, Vasya charges back into the same Midnight where she left Sasha, saving him with Voron before rescuing Vladimir. She sends all of them through Midnight and promises Oleg that she can deliver him to Dmitrii for a meeting and having him back at camp at the same exact time, to which he agrees.

Everyone meets in Moscow, and decide that they will meet the Tatars in a battle at Kulikovo. Oleg says that he will betray the Tatars when the time is right, and Vasya takes him back to the Tatar camp as promised. She then returns to meet with Sasha, Sergei and Dmitrii, to tell them that they must accept the chyteri’s existence and freedom if they want to win the war. All three of them agree with Medved and Lady Midnight witnessing their words. Vasya then returns to Midnight, finds Ded Grib and asks him and Medved to sow chaos within the Tatar’s army; however, she does feel guilty when they raid a nearby town and kill a pregnant woman in their desperation for food.

As the two armies prepare for war, Sasha asks Dmitrii to be the Russian army’s champion and challenge someone from the Tatars to single combat, as he believes winning this will boost the army’s morale. Dmitrii agrees and Sasha speaks with Vasya about the world they are trying to save. Morozko arrives and confronts Vasya about releasing Medved, to which she replies that they must work together to save both worlds. As Sasha wins the one-on-one fight, Dmitrii sends the army forward, but in the midst of the chaos, Sasha gets impaled by a sword, and Vasya rushes to him. She knows he will die, but asks Medved to take vengeance for her and he gives her the power to raise the dead before charging into battle himself. Vasya gets on Pozhar behind her brother and rushes to find Morozko to help revive him; however, Sasha does not wish to be revived, and allows Morozko to take him to the afterlife. Afterwards, Morozko, Medved and Vasya work together to decimate the Tatar army, and as promised, Oleg betrays the Tatars in the chaos of the war. Just then Vladimir and his army, destroying the invading force over the course of an undisclosed time.

Once the battle is over, Vasya takes Dmitrii to Sasha’s body, where he agrees to send him back to the Lavra to be buried, and promises that Sasha will not be forgotten. Vasya feels empty for losing him and leaves into Midnight, followed by Medved and Morozko. She then realizes that she united them under her, and Morozko tells Medved that he owe him a life, and Medved brings Solovey back before leaving the lovers with a joking promise that he might return if Vasya calls for him again. Morozko and Vasya visit the lake, where they find Ded Grib and Lady Midnight, both of whom tell Vasya that they will be seeing her again before vanishing. Ultimately the two of them walk into Midnight, uncertain of where they are going, but content on riding it together.

My Thoughts: Once gain, the folklore is so rich in this story that it was so delightful to read, though of course there were some liberties taken with the stories of the folklores making them slightly different. Still, I love how Vasya fights to combine the two worlds–the Christian and the Pagan ones–even though many people believe it is not possible. She believes in it and so she makes it happen, deciding to trust herself in her powers and ability to do things that she believes is for the best of the two worlds that she loves just as fiercely. She learns devastation, the truth, and loss, but ultimately she believes in love and in the ability of individuals to believe in the things unseen.

I really did love this story, along with the first two books, so I want to recommend that if you have a chance to read it, you do. It will definitely be on my to-re-read list if I ever have the time to re-read books again due to how rich that folklore is and just how much I loved the strength of Vasya’s character.

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