Thursday, June 3, 2021

Book 287: The Winter of the Witch


"But still she crawled out of the cage, put her hands, then her face, into the fire, got to her feet. An instant she stood there, wavering, beyond fear, untouched by the flames. She’d forgotten they could burn her."

Dates read: January 6-10, 2019

Rating: 10/10

I took a creative writing class in college. I can't remember why, it must have been mandatory for my degree somehow, because I haven't ever had any real talent for the subject. It went about as well as anyone could expect given that my gifts lie elsewhere. We had to turn in a piece every week, and I got banned from haiku because I wrote so many. But I struggled hard any time I tried to write a short story, and always for the same reason: I never know how to end it, so it inevitably culminated in the tragic and unexpected death of the main character.

It's hard enough to write an ending to a story, I can't imagine trying to wrap up a whole series. How do you close the door on your characters and their world while making sure that you've done justice to your narrative arc? There have been plenty of authors who've stumbled trying to thread that needle. The first two entries in Katherine Arden's Winternight series have been some of my most-enjoyed books of the past few years, so while I was looking forward to the third and final entry, The Winter of the Witch, I must admit that I was nervous, too. What if the way she wrapped up the story fell flat? Luckily, we as readers have been in good hands so far and Arden proves that the success of the first two entries was no fluke.

As in the previous installment, Arden picks up her narrative right where she'd left off: Moscow is burning and Vasya is a wanted woman. After a narrow, dearly bought escape, she ventures into the realm of Midnight to seek out Morozko, the frost demon with whom she has an increasingly complicated relationship, and free him from the captivity he's been placed under. Meanwhile, her monk brother Sasha is trying to repair his relationship with the Grand Prince of Moscow, now on a seeming collision course for battle with the Mongols. Then there's the influence of the chaos demon Medved, whose interests suddenly have some alignment with Vasya's own. And Baba Yaga herself even shows up. As a decisive conflict draws ever-nearer, Vasya is fighting not just for Rus', but the preservation of the world of sprites and spirits she loves.

Arden has built a beautiful, enchanting world over the course of this series, and this book is a fantastic conclusion to it. I've gotten so interested in Slavic folklore over the course of my reading this series, and this entry added even more shading to this rich background. I was really curious as to how Arden would handle the slow-burning romance between Vasya and Morozko...she's never shied away from the wildly imbalanced power dynamics between them and I thought her resolution to their story hit exactly the right note. And the constant reference to political and religious power struggles within Rus' over the course of the series turn out to be more than just window dressing, introducing me to historical events I'd had no knowledge of beforehand.

There are some little things that I wished had been done differently...I found myself wishing for just a little reorientation at the beginning of the book (unless you've literally read the first two within the past couple months, you'll probably be a little bit lost, like I was). And I admit I'd hoped for a bigger role for Baba Yaga. She's such a prominent figure in Russian mythology that everyone knows she's got to make an appearance in this book, but I wish there'd been more of her. But honestly, this is one of the best series closers I've ever read, wrapping up the story in a way that felt natural rather than forced. This series is amazing and I recommend it to everyone! I can't wait to see what Katherine Arden does next!

One year ago, I was reading: The Moor's Account

Two years ago, I was reading: Good Riddance

Three years ago, I was reading: Boy, Snow, Bird

Four years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Five years ago, I was reading: Spinster

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