I've been reading a lot of trilogies lately, which are stories that are long enough to seriously invest us in them. I can't recall being so wary about a third book in a trilogy in a long while, but this one paid off with aplomb.
The reason I was wary is because I adored the first book, which was a fairy tale set in a remote village in the north of Russia, in the depths of winter and with a small cast; but I merely enjoyed the second, which was much more grounded in reality and history, told by an ensemble cast in the city bustle of Moscow. Which approach would the third book take?
Well, it mixes the two and it does so magnificently. I may adore that first book, 'The Bear and the Nightingale', but this both deepens and completes a number of its stories. Everything I liked about it is here, including whole chapters full of fairy tale logic, but everything I liked about its first sequel is here too, bustling us along at pace. Holy crap, this book reads quickly. I don't think I was able to breathe for about sixty pages.
It all begins right after the second book ends. Vasya, our heroine with the sight, has just saved Moscow by defeating the sorcerer who planned to steal it for his own. However, her solution involved setting fire to the city and calling in a blizzard to put out the fire. Given that she's not supposed to have any powers, the populace supposedly upstanding and godfearing citizens, the wicked priest Konstantin easily whips them up into a frenzy and has them burn her alive as a witch.
Needless to say, she doesn't die because this is her trilogy and this book is called 'The Winter of the Witch'. It wouldn't be much of a winter if we killed off the witch in the opening chapters. She's saved by Medved, whom she battled and defeated in 'The Bear and the Nightingale', because Morozko, his brother, to whom she's become seriously attached, commanded him to do so in return for his freedom. After he does so, Vasya's sister's maid Varvara puts her onto the midnight road while everyone, Medved included, thinks that she's dead.
And so we progress in a number of directions separately. Vasya spends time in Midnight, learning much about who she is and what she means, entirely at a remove from our world. In Moscow, Medved, invisible to everyone else, has Konstantin do his evil bidding. And Dimitri, the Grand Prince of Moscow, is tasked with finding a way to free his city and country both from the Tatars. The solutions to each of these problems may end up being the same solution and Vasya is the only one who can make it happen.
That's hardly a minor goal for the final book in a trilogy but the author is on top form here and she pulls out all the stops to make it happen. As fond as I may be of book one, this is clearly the best in the trilogy, a notable achievement indeed. By merging the approaches of each of its predecessors, I believe Arden was mirroring what she planned to do within the story of this book and that adds serious depths.
If anything can top the pace that the author sets here, it's the imagery she conjures up, not once but often. She writes elegant prose anyway, commanding literature, but some of this imagery will stay with me. The upyr, or vampire child, walking up a hill in Moscow. The fairy tale lake with horses turning into birds. A realm made entirely of different midnights. A hand that grabs Vasya from inside an oven. These and more stood out to me as magic moments.
The characters are strong here, not just Vasya, who we expect to grow once more as she has in each of the prior books. Morozko and Medved find meaning here that hasn't been forthcoming until now. Dimitri comes good and Sasha as well, albeit in completely different ways. A variety of chertyi, or spirits, appear and contribute throughout the book, from those as wildly powerful as Lady Midnight and her sister Lady Midday to scene-stealers like Ded Grib, a mushroom chertyi who lives by that lake in Midnight.
Everyone plays their part, which is much of the point of this book and this trilogy. The more I think about how Katherine Arden's writing mirrors what she wanted to achieve with these books, the more I have admiration, not only for her prose but for her construction. And I realise that the reality that bites hard in 'The Girl in the Tower' has to be there, because this is all about how to combine reality with fantasy, which, after all, is the reality of someone else.
I'd love to read more but, of course, the trilogy is done and it really has no reason to continue into further stories. Katherine Arden has written two other books that I'm aware of, both of them children's novels. I should seek them out anyway, but I'm keen to see what she'll conjure up next for adults. Anyone who starts out a career with something as great as this has potential indeed for an amazing career. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles by Katherine Arden click here