The Winternight Trilogy | Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight #1)
by Katherine Arden
Published by Del Rey Books (2017)
Rating: *****

The Girl in the Tower (Winternight #2)
by Katherine Arden
Published by Del Rey Books (2017)
Rating: *****

The Winter of the Witch (Winternight #3)
by Katherine Arden
Published by Del Rey Books (2019)
Rating: *****

I’ve never posted about this trilogy in the past. Having read it last year, it felt only right that I wait for its conclusion before posting a comprehensive review – because as series’ progress, a lot of thoughts change. The Winter of the Witch, the final part to the trilogy released earlier this week. A few days later, I am pleased to say my thoughts about the series have not shifted since the first book, and my feelings remain unchanged. My personal ranking of the books would be:

  1. The Bear and the Nightingale
  2. The Winter of the Witch
  3. The Girl in the Tower

This fantasy (but-so-much more) series is set in an alternate medieval Russia, where history and myth (from Russian folktales) co-exist. It traces the growth of a young girl, Vasilisa (Vasya), who, having inherited a deep understanding of magic, is thrust with the responsibility of protecting her realm and her family from individuals who seek to destroy it, including from within.

While the first book focuses on her initial years and several tragic happenings (which shape her future decision-making), Vasya grows through the second book. Being ostracized by society, Vasya chooses to immerse herself in defiance of authorities that seek to straddle her powers and limit her choices. She conceals her gender and travels across Russia, befriending and earning the admiration of royalty in Moscow. The final book sees her defending the Russian Empire and owning her gender and the phrase “witch”.

That’s as succinct I can make it, but no amount of plot description is sufficient to detail the narratives that the books create for each character. Arden’s map of character progression is natural and predictable, yet, when events and choices are actually taking place, you find yourself overwhelmed with shock and overcome with emotion. The conclusion of the book is fitting, and perhaps an exemplar of Arden’s planning – it is one that can be foretold, yet alternative endings cannot be imagined.

The books are outwardly feminist, which is also an intriguing, careful choice that Arden makes. Russian folktales are difficult to adapt and retell, but she manages to weave in themes that will resonate with generations, and also sends across several messages relevant to global politics today. The protagonist, Vasya, is very, very badass, and her conduct of herself, especially through the second book, endears her to the reader rather quickly. While trilogies can get drab in the middle book, the pace is racy, and there is a continual sense of something building – keeping you hooked and waiting for the conclusion to the series.

Arden’s style of writing is narrative and vivid. Her attention to detail is exquisite, and it is evident that she has immersed herself in Russian history and culture prior to writing these tales. Her sense of time and setting are fantastic, and the atmospheric nature of her writing make these books an unputdownable read – especially in the winter. Her dialogue is short, but extremely effective, aiding plot progression, and creating meaningful interactions between her characters.

I’m glad also that the series was a trilogy and not more. While there are open-endings that will allow for the fanfiction world to concoct their own tales, Arden does a neat job of helping her protagonist reach a zenith – a fitting manner of conclusion. Anything more might have displaced that, and is a risk I’m grateful she did not take.

I’ve never found myself consumed by folktales as easily as I found myself invested in this series. While that demands me to doff my cap to Arden, I’m eager to see what history she chooses to retell next. The expectations are high.

Let me know what you think!

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