I have recently read the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, which has raised the bar for modern fantasy books. Perfect for cold, winter nights, these novels deserve to be on every reader’s bookshelf. I’d go as far as saying that they deserve to be turned into movies. Why are they so special? Follow my Winternight Trilogy review, and you’ll get my point.
The Winternight Trilogy is set in the 14th century in the territories of nowadays Russian Federation. It’s an intricate tale that follows Vasilisa Petrovna’s development into a powerful young woman and Russia’s unification.
The author combined historical truths with Slavic folklore, so fans of the Russian culture will certainly love it. Fairytales such as Vasilisa the Beautiful and Father Frost foreshadow the main character’s destiny. Moreover, the trilogy features the chyerti, who are spirits of nature and of the household. These whimsical beings lived amongst humans and thrived on their offerings.
In the following paragraphs, I will summarize each Winternight Trilogy novel and review them. I’ll try to keep my ideas as spoiler-free as possible, so keep in mind that the narrative is more intricate than it seems.
1. The Bear and the Nightingale
The first volume of the Winternight trilogy focuses on the family of Pyotr Vladimirovich, the boyar of Lesnaya Zemlya. After his beloved wife died after giving birth to their daughter, Vasilisa, he tries his best to raise his five children and to rule his lands. But Vasya, the youngest, is a wild girl who is very much like her mother, talking to the creature in the oven and learning the speech of the horses. Her unusual habits catch the attention of Father Konstantin Nikonovich, the village priest, who swears to turn the people into good Christians.
Enter Medved The Eater, a vile chyert who spreads disease and death. Being the only one who can see it, Vasilisa fights him, but it might be too late. And how will she explain her peculiar behavior to the distrustful village people, who fear her?
I didn’t know what the book was about before starting it, so I had no expectations. I think it was for the best because every twist and turn was a genuine surprise. The beginning was a bit slow for my taste, but all the background information was necessary to set the scene for the next two installments. The mix of rural landscapes and Slavic folklore blended seamlessly, creating an irresistible atmosphere. Katherine Arden’s writing style was easy to follow, full of vivid images and sharp, yet period-appropriate dialogue. I enjoyed the horror elements which, unfortunately, are missing from the sequels.
Now, I want to say a few words about our heroine. Female protagonists are easy to hate because they are either perfect or flawed to the point of stupidity. Vasilisa Petrovna is no Mary Sue. She builds her way inch by inch, staying faithful to her family and to her lands as best as she can. Stubborn, impulsive, yet forgiving, Vasya made me curious about her future adventures, which continue in the second volume of the Winternight Trilogy.
2. The Girl in the Tower
Fearing the wrath of her people towards ‘witches’, Vasilisa Petrovna leaves the village. Life was unkind to girls who refused marriage or life in a convent, so Vasya assumes the identity of a young boy to travel as she pleases. She arrives in Moscow, at the court of Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, and helps him fight off the Tatars, who were pillaging the land. Vasya’s true identity is revealed by Kaschei, an evil magician. He threatens to destroy Moscow unless Vasya marries him, so she has to sacrifice her freedom for her loved ones. Will the chyerti come to her aid once more? Vasya has one last trick in her sleeve, but is it the right choice?
The change of setting brought new problems for Vasya, who thought she could start a new life in Moscow with her elder brother and sister. While this second volume still follows her development, we get to see the bigger political picture. I was thrilled to revisit familiar characters and to find out more about Vasya’s genealogy, which explains her supernatural abilities. The last part of the novel kept me awake and reading until early morning because I had to know what happened next. I wanted to hate the antagonist Kaschei for the betraying scum he was, but I just couldn’t. This is how good Katherine Arden’s writing is.
3. The Winter of the Witch
An old enemy accuses Vasya of being a witch and calls for capital punishment. Plague and death roam on the streets of Moscow, terrorizing its people. The chyerti are almost powerless because nobody believes in them anymore. The Tatar horde declares war against the Princes of Russia. Dmitri Ivanovich fights for freedom, but his army doesn’t stand a chance alone. Vasya travels between worlds, trying to bring the church and the chyert together. Will the frail treaty be enough to keep the Tatar menace at bay? Is she strong enough to use her powers wisely, or will she go mad? Who can she trust, and who will betray her?
The most complex book of the Winternight trilogy, the Winter of the Witch messed up with my feelings in the most beautiful way. I suffered alongside Vasya, I got angry with her, and I wanted to ride a magical horse into battle. I loved it, for short. Two of my favorite characters made a magnificent comeback, and I enjoyed their banter with Vasya tremendously.
It may seem sadistic, but I agree that Vasya had to pay for her mistakes and pride, even though it almost killed her. The baptism by fire represented Vasya’s journey through both the human and the spirits’ world.
And let’s not forget about the monumental final battle of Kulikovo, which is a significant event in the unification of the Russian territories. Arden’s attention to details and to the historical truth made the story believable and unforgettable.
Thank you for reading my Winternight Trilogy review. I hope I made you curious about this magical universe. If you are looking for a refreshing, cliché-free, entrancing series with a reckless protagonist, give Katherine Arden a try!