Every once in a while a book or —even better—a series of books comes along to take you out of yourself. Such a series is the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden.
At first glance, the structure of these books, particularly the first one, The Bear and the Nightingale, feels familiar. Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna runs wild in the woods instead of doing her sewing. She lives a bit outside the bounds for Christian girls. Indeed, she sees, feeds, and befriends the chyerti (folks spirits, demons) who live in her family’s oven, stables, woods. Like many a heroine before her, she does not fit the mold established for female persons in her patriarchal culture. And things only get worse for Vasya when a stepmother comes along. But by placing this familiar formula within the fairy tales, folk tales, and culture of medieval proto-Russia, Arden gives most US readers a unique world. As with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, the structure feels familiar even as the decor seems fresh and new.
Arden emphasizes the discomforts of the setting and yet it drew me in, as any good fairy tale kingdom should, whether real or imagined. This is a wintry country, one where most of the family sleeps atop the massive communal oven for warmth. Food gets scarce as winter drags on even as it is traveling season, frozen rivers making for easy, if frigid, passage. And with winter comes the winter-king, Morozko, who recognizes Vasya witchy nature and marks her for mysterious reasons.
Each subsequent book in the series builds on the others. The second book, The Girl in the Tower, takes us to Moscow, giving readers a deeper experience of this world beyond Vasya’s small village. Vasya herself is also gleefully attempting to be true to her nature despite living in a culture that deems her a witch and a whore simply for wearing pants. Vasya’s rejection of expectations puts her beloved, respectable brother and sister in a compromising position that she cannot ignore. Arden deepens the magic in book two as well, a smart move wherein the book extends the setting, mythology, and characters in tandem.
By book three, The Winter of the Witch, Vasya learns that she may be able to accept herself but that does not mean that her society will. And as she comes into her own, so does the series’ magic and the society we know as Russia. The developmental layering enables the character of Vasya to grow while also giving the readers new cultural and magical elements to explore in each book.
The Winternight Trilogy knows which sandboxes its playing in. Not only do we have “girl who does not conform” but also the tropes of the magical chosen one and the clash of new religions and old, a la The Mists of Avalon or Game of Thrones. But it adds to those narratives, rather than merely regurgitating them.
Last, I love this series for its believable characters coupled with its questions into the nature of morality. These books wrestle with the meaning of good and evil, with the need for both chaos and order, with tensions between Christianity and folk religion, with the corruptibility of beauty and the beauty of imperfection. They explore the ties that bind, examining family and country and then probing what those words mean.
If nothing else, the Winternight Trilogy is a lovely, novelized fairy tale. And that’s reason enough to enjoy.
- Retellings of myths and fairy tales, bonus points for feminism, anti-racism, and/or realistic depictions of trauma and darkness.(Circe, Uprooted)
- Fantasy/magic books grounded or with a toe into the real world (Harry Potter series, The Ten Thousand Doors of January)
- Complicated friendships, particularly among or including women (Sula, Normal People)
- Stories that explore ideas (The Buried Giant, Beloved)