REVIEW: THE WINTER OF THE WITCH (THE WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY #3)
In the land of Midnight...
With winter's chill clinging onto where I live well into March, I was persuaded by someone in a bookish Discord to finish up the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY and am so glad I did!
HOW I RATED IT
4.5/5 THE WINTER OF THE WITCH offers a fitting conclusion to Arden's atmospheric fairy tale trilogy that satisfied and surprised me in many ways.
I think it's worth speaking to the plot and overall tone of the book first because these are both every bit as different from THE GIRL IN THE TOWER as that entry was from THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE. I am pretty impressed by how distinctly unique each of these books felt while retaining cohesion as a larger trilogy. The tone of this third and final book immediately starts off on a much darker and more dire tone than it's predecessors. There is a chaotic opening act that had some truly shocking consequences which really threw me for a loop. From there things really do plunge into darkness as Vasya enters the land of Midnight. With old enemies that return with a vengeance, a diminished and imprisoned Morozko, and disgruntled spirits that watch her actions closely, Vasya's trip through the shadows explores sides of her character and this world that we'd previously only assumed were there. While, I certainly found everything to be on the more depressing side, there is still plenty of magic and wonder to be found as Vasya tries to find her way through yet another perilous set of circumstances. I like how THE WINTER OF THE WITCH revisits certain characters and concepts from previous books and explores how everything may not be as straightforward as they were before. It's not just magic good, religion bad, or Morozko good, Medved bad, or even chyerti good, men bad. There's a whole world of nuance that this book explores and I loved the way that the duality of each side is explored with so much more depth. There are also some incredible action sequences throughout with the climactic battle at the end of part four being a particular standout. I would have liked for the final conflict to be a little more detailed and drawn out, but I kind of understood why Vasya wouldn't necessarily find herself directly in the middle of it. In the end, I found myself satisfied with how everything wrapped up.
Vasya and Sasha stole the show and my heart once again. I love how much these two are almost reflections of one another and appreciate the balance that each of the siblings brings to the other. Their sister Olga takes much more of a backseat this time around and Marya doesn't really factor in much after the first half of the book, but I think they were still given a decent enough sense of closure in their stories. Morozko and Medved must face off once again and I think it was cool that their sibling relationship was explored more here as well. Konstantin was more interesting than ever and we get to see the depths of how tortured his soul is. I wouldn't say that I found him to be a sympathetic character in any real way, but I thought it was super interesting to explore how his dark desires clashed with his priestly duties and how he could never really put his faith before his own self-glorification. The way him and Medved interact was also fascinating with their relationship being made up of equal parts hate and seduction. Midnight and Pozhar get much more development and I found the chaotic nature of who they were to be quite engaging. I won't spoil too many of the new characters, but it is worth calling out that there is a little magical mushroom man (or cheyrt) that I enjoyed a great deal.
Even though there were so many wonderful side characters in this growing cast, this is still very much Vasya's story. Over the course of the journey, we see her grow and harden from the tribulations and the loneliness that she must endure. Some of this growth is for the better with her growing more powerful and confident in her abilities. Other aspects of her arc are much darker and I felt like Arden finally delved into the consequences of dealing with magic as well as other dark things. The concept of magic leading to madness made a lot of sense, especially in the context of some things that happened in the previous book. It was also great to see her try to reconcile her "unholy" powers with her Catholic upbringing. The are some surprise twists about her heritage that I found to be brilliant as well.
The world really opens up for this adventure, thanks in part to a supernatural means of travel. I enjoyed seeing the aftermath of what happened in Moscow and definitely felt for Dmitri as he tried to pull his city from the ashes while more threats bore down on it. I continued to enjoy some of the more political maneuverings, especially when they involved Konstantin's vile machinations. What was even more enjoyable than the chapters in Moscow though, was how much time is spent in more supernatural realms. The land of Midnight is I think where Morozko's cabin is technically in, but we hadn't been able to really explore this mystical realm at all until now. The dark, creepy place was quite a delight and the concept of there being a place in which all midnights coexist was a pretty interesting one. That said, it wasn't always immediately obvious to me when we were in or out of Midnight since there are certain places that are quite mystical on their own, particularly a certain cabin on a lake. There are also shady forests, frozen towns, musky war camps, and dangerous rivers which the story explores.
Beyond just the interesting scenery, I also enjoyed how the character of the world was explored a bit deeper. While the magic in this story is on the softer side, as is fitting with a fairy tale, there is also a little more explanation on how it works, where it comes from, and what the costs of using it can be. I liked this additional level of definition and appreciated that it didn't make it feel any less "magical" or mysterious. The nature of the cheyrti is also explored a little further as that unseen world is on the fringes of extinction. I still couldn't quite decide if a bunch of demonic creatures running around was really such a good thing, but I did find myself more invested in the idea of these beings just sort of acting as an extension of the world around them, both natural and man-made. I also appreciated the way that the supernatural forces collided with the Catholic Church. The way that religion factored into this installment felt much more authentic with my personal experiences and led me to wonder if Arden had a much better grasp of it than the previous two books had indicated. I was also very surprised by one moment in particular which simultaneously lent some legitimacy to the priest characters while not necessarily confirming the existence of God or validating every aspect of their beliefs. It was also really interesting to read how this was sort of reflective of Russia's actual historical belief system(s) in the author's Afterword. In the end, I felt as though Russia itself underwent just as much change as Vasya did and seeing that mirrored development was a pleasure to experience.
To repeat my comments from THE GIRL IN THE TOWER:
"These books have some beautiful trade paperback editions that look great together on a shelf. The fonts and formatting are all nice and I love the divider pages that distinguish each act/part of the story. I also think it's neat that the back of the book provides some bonus content on Russian names, topics for conversation, and some lovely notes from the author."
I would also add that I especially appreciated the afterword by the author which gave a little more insight into the ending as well as the historical events that loosely inspired it.
THE WINTER OF THE WITCH should be a priority read for anyone who's already read and enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy. I'm so glad to have gone on this adventure with Vasya and all the weird and wonderous characters that she met along the way.
(+) A truly spectacular sense of atmosphere
(+) Even more incredible tie ins to Russian folklore
(+) Vasya fully comes into her own
(+) Several deeply compelling story arcs that each had their own exciting climax
(+) Medieval Russia and the haunting land of Midnight were vividly depicted
(+) Pozhar is developed into an interesting character
(+) Some awesome antagonists
(+) A satisfying conclusion to the series
(-) Vasya and Morozko's relationship still weirds me out a little
(-) I would have liked the final conflict to have been a bit more drawn out somehow