The Winternight Trilogy was written by Katherine Arden, from 2017 to 2019. It’s adult historical fantasy, which is basically my favorite genre. The three books are “The Bear and the Nightingale,” “The Girl in the Tower,” and “The Winter of the Witch.” These books are all absolutely magical and so immersive. They take place in 14th century Russia and explore the conflict between the Orthodox Church and the older, more pagan, belief in spirits called chyerti. It also delves into the politics of the time, and the difficulty of simply being a woman. Arden has a degree in Russian and an interest in this time period, and she lived in Moscow for two years. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand how she painted such a complete picture. The Winternight Trilogy follows Vasya as she tries to save the spirits from a world that’s indifferent, and tries to secure a life for herself as well.
It’s the mark of a really good fantasy book that the lack of magic in the real world feels deeply unfair once you finish reading. That’s how I felt after these books. It felt almost real and nothing has made me want to believe in fairies this much for a long time. The first book follows Vasya as she grows up, hearing fairytales from her nurse and making friends with the characters from those stories in the woods behind her house. As she gets older she worries her family with her inability to grow out of these fairytales, and her tendency to talk with things only she can see. When she’s about 13 her father marries her stepmom, who also has the sight but believes that the chyerti are demons. A new priest is sent from Moscow, a real fire and brimstone type, and he takes it upon himself to save the townspeople from their sin. They stop making offerings to their chyerti, and they grow weaker and weaker. But these chyerti are also their protectors and not everything in the woods is friendly.
I might have made it sound a little melodramatic, but I promise you it’s not at all. The first book is actually pretty slow, taking its time to carve out all of the characters in detail. Vasya has a big family and in the later books we meet many more characters, but they all feel real, with their own motivations, flaws, and virtues. Even the villains are deeply sympathetic, and not just because they’re attractive and traumatized. There’s loads of depth. The characters feel true to the time, as does everything in the book. Arden’s background in Russian history shines through in every facet of this book. There is romance in this book, but it’s definitely more of a side plot. It brought a feeling of originality to a trope that’s been done to death, though I can’t tell you which trope it is without completely spoiling it. Even still, it didn’t feel quite as strong as the rest of the series. The end of the first book is also not a high point, but if you push through you’ll find it only gets better.
Now since this is our issue about women, it only makes sense to talk about feminism in this book, which is certainly a theme. Vasya is an unconventional woman of her time. She loves her freedom. She does not want to get married and she does not want to join a convent, so no one really knows what to do with her. Her family loves her, but they are products of their time. They want Vasya happy, but within one of those paths. On top of this, the priest, and eventually the townspeople, believe she’s a witch. Life in the 14th century can get kind of dark for a woman like Vasya. Much of the trilogy explores Vasya trying to find a balance between freedom, family, and purpose. She once that she doesn’t know if she can have any, let alone all of them. So there’s that. Throughout the series, Vasya also has to learn to respect the choices of other women, even if she doesn’t understand them. Think of that scene in Little Women between Jo and Meg. Granted, Vasya is white, as are all the other women, and wealthy, as are most of the other women. It’s a somewhat limited exploration of women’s rights in the 14th century, but it feels genuine. None of the characters are perfect feminist heroes and none of them are just evil sexist villains. They all exist in a gray area and it makes it all the more real and difficult to read. I would also like to add that this isn’t an anti-Christian book, it is more interested in coexistence and kindness, both of which are good things, whether you’re Christian or not.
Please read this book. It was practically life changing.