The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine ArdenI have enjoyed this series from the start because it sweeps you away into the time of Russia’s transition between old religions and new with all the conflicts and difficulties that involves. Arden brings the chyerti, old peoples, to life while balancing questions of faith, magic, and personhood in a grand adventure with both darkness and amazing discovery. It encompasses a world between times and a battle much bigger than all but a few could realize.

The Winter of the Witch is no exception. It is the perfect culmination of what came before and offers both a harder road and a better solution than I anticipated, leaving me with regrets only because it is the final book in the series. For those of you who wait until a series is complete, now’s your chance to explore a culturally enthralling tale with deep questions to ponder. I cling to a slight hope, though, of a companion novel as Vasya has more adventures ahead of her.

This book contains two intertwined arcs, but the first ends long before the book does. It could have made for a satisfying conclusion all on its own, but when the second arc takes command of the book, it brings the story to a stronger, deeper end stretching all the way back to The Bear and the Nightingale.

The story centers on Vasya as did the previous ones, but she is much more than the wild girl she begins the series as or the witch the Muscovites believe her to be. The chyerti know. They see her potential even when she’s blind to it, but she’s not so blind that she refuses to see when the world depends on her waking up to her role.

Nor is she the only complex character. Whether human or not, the characters live by their own rules, beliefs, and expectations. Some are ghosts, others mushrooms, but they have their own lives. Seeing Vasya navigate between them and her own expectations is fascinating. Her efforts don’t come without a cost though, and sometimes she’s not the one called to pay it. This is a novel where actions have consequences. Power does not equal blamelessness with the cost in madness or regret at the very least.

There are many powerful moments in the book, often around the complexity of the characters, whether it’s the mad priest revealing his doubts and grief in art capable of swaying the Bear, or the gift Vasya gives to Morozko, the Winter King, and what he offers her in the end.

The narrative is one of learning and growing in acceptance. It clashes with both devil stories, and the purity of those who follow the new god and cast down the old. It raises questions about those rules that come from humanity not divine and yet are enforced as though from a greater source. This is not a binary world but one that recognizes good and evil in all things with none innately one or the other. Everything has the ability to choose between the two. It’s beautiful and far from easy as the characters struggle with that ability when circumstances pull them to one side or the other. There’s the same uneasy relationship between old and new traditions with some able to recognize it while others attempt to paint their opponents on either side as evil and never look further.

It’s not just the message that draws me though. The events work out through careful seeding, sometimes allowing me to predict and other times surprising me but in an “of course” sort of way. This speaks to the immersion where the logic of the world is so stable it avoids the easy solution for the right one and makes that choice real to the reader as much as the characters.

Reading the afterword, it’s fascinating to see how Arden blended actual events into the story so seamlessly. This feels like the real answer to questions still being debated by historians. I’m glad I didn’t know the history beforehand because anticipation, good and bad, would have stripped away some of the tension.

Also, since I noted the issues with many POVs in my last review, I need to say Arden similarly uses many perspectives, but they work to tie the different happenings together, building the web in which they’re all entangled, rather than abandoning the other characters.

The book brought me to tears, both of joy and loss. It’s not a simple, or comfortable, read, but that’s only true because the characters came to life and made their grief or wonder my own. I’ll miss the time I spent in this Russia, but I leave it satisfied both in the story and the state the characters have achieved.

P.S. I received this copy from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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