Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Winter of the Witch - Katherine Arden

'The Winter of the Witch' is the last of the trilogy that started with 'The Bear and the Nightingale' and continued with 'The Girl in the Tower'. I was going to make a sweeping statement about trends in publishing fairy tale books and the timing of when 'The Bear and the Nightingale' first came out, but realise I'm not actually to sure of my ground.

I noticed the first book based on it's pretty cover, and because Waterstones were promoting it heavily. I held off buying it until it was in paperback, and because I had really enjoyed Naomi Novik's 'Uprooted'. Since then I've become much more aware of Slavic folklore, and the general fashion for retelling fairy stories. It's a sub genre that sits on the edge of things I'm interested in - done well I find something I think is genuinely exciting, done not so well it's a bit tiresome.

Katherine Arden does it well, and as the trilogy has unfolded she's become a noticeably better writer. She keeps one foot in history, and another in established folklore which provide a solid framework for her plot. 'The Winter of the Witch' opens immediately after the events of 'The Girl in the Tower' with Vasya soon fighting for her life as a baying mob, led by the deranged priest, Konstantin, plan to burn her as a witch.

The crisis continues to build as events unfold, there is plague in the city, the dead are walking, war is coming, and Vasya needs to find ways to protect those she loves and a place, or way, to live in the world.

Arden explains magic as the ability to forget that things are other than the way you want them. If Vasya can forget that people will notice her, they won't notice her. If she can call on the memory of the fire that threatened her she can call the fire. To forget to much about reality, or to bend it to far is to risk madness. There's a logic to all this, the ability to be magical is Vasya's inheritance, it's literally in her blood but she's limited by experience and a sense of self preservation. The things she does seem only just impossible and Arden makes sure there's a price to be paid for every choice.

She also redeems Father Konstantin a little, giving him some humanity back as his story ends, just enough to make me feel a passing moment of empathy, which makes him a much more convincing horror. And that's the real strength of this last book, it fleshes out the personalities of a number of protagonists we're already familiar with making them much more complex and satisfactory.

I'm not sure I can make any great claims for the series beyond saying that if it sounds like the kind of thing you enjoy, you'll almost certainly enjoy it. For me that's partly due to the historical background detail. Both in terms of the battles that happened, and the domestic details of stoves and bath houses, smells and textures. The more prosaic details balance the fantastic ones. The other charm is how well drawn the characters are. I'll certainly look forward to whatever Arden writes next.


  1. I've yet to read the middle one, but I loved the first in this trilogy.

  2. I think they get better. The pacing of the second book is better than in the first, and the depth she gives some of the characters in the third is really satisfying. I really like the way that magic is presented too. It's dangerous and limited, a tool that can be used to help Vasya but not without its own risks, and not in a wave your wand and all will be well way. I know reworking fairy tales is fashionable right now but Arden does it particularly well. Better I think than Naomi Novak in Uprooted and Spinning Silver, although I loved both of those (and read them more or less alongside hence the comparison). It will be really interesting to see what she does next.