The Winter of the Witch
Katherine Arden

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

Oh, THANK you. After two books of watching Vasya getting the bejesus kicked out of her and giving shitty people second and third and fiftieth chances that they frankly didn’t deserve, it was really refreshing to spend the final 372 pages of the trilogy watching her run out of patience with everybody else’s bullshit. By “shitty people” and “everybody else,” I mostly just mean Konstantin. He has a role to play, I suppose, but I still don’t think the story would have suffered if we’d just fed him to the rusalka in book one. (Yeah, okay, it would’ve cut out a significant chunk of books two and three, but that is a sacrifice I am more than willing to make.)

On the subject of these books being too dense for my personal taste: I have decided that it is not actually possible to accurately summarize every event, nuance, and sub-arc in The Winter of the Witch, and I have made my peace with that. I’m going to try to keep the book summary short, because otherwise we’re going to be here all day. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m not reintroducing the characters. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, too bad. Go back and read the first two reviews. Or, better yet, read the books.


Moscow, winter. Amidst the ashes of The Girl in the Tower, rage is brewing. The city was set aflame, and was just barely saved from burning to the ground; Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich was almost assassinated by an ambitious sorcerer, and the vibe in general has been very unnatural of late. The people are, in short, in the kind of ugly mood that generally precedes witch-burnings. While Dmitrii and Sasha assess the damage and try to determine the best course of action in regard to the looming threat of a Tatar invasion, Konstantin tells the people of Moscow that Vasya is responsible for everything currently wrong with their lives. The mob takes him at his word and seizes Vasya from Olga’s palace, brutally killing her beloved Solovey before beating Vasya herself almost to death. With rescue all but impossible, Vasya begs Morozko to release her to her death, but he instead runs off to strike a deal with his untrustworthy twin, the selfsame bear who was imprisoned at the end of The Bear and the Nightingale. Medved leaves his prison while Morozko enters a prison of his own, believing Medved will save Vasya from Konstantin’s machinations; Vasya, however, has no reason to take Medved at his word, and she escapes her pyre on her own when she realizes she has the ability to bend reality to her will. She gets a timely assist from Olga’s slave Varvara, who sneaks her out of the confused mob and helps her disappear. Unfortunately, her survival technically fulfills Medved’s agreement with Morozko, and he abandons her and reasserts his control over Konstantin, whom he bribes with power and women (in that order).

While Medved runs riot in Moscow, strengthened by the approach of summer, Vasya finds a temporary respite in a looking glass world controlled by the chyert Polunochnitsa (Lady Midnight). Here she makes her way to a house on a lake, where there are horses who turn into birds, and befriends the chyerti she encounters, including a little mushroom named Ded Grib, who proudly claims the honor of being the first chyert to swear fealty to her. She also meets the spirit of her great-grandmother, an embittered witch who is cruel and nurturing by turns, and learns that her grandmother Tamara had a twin sister, Varvara, who – though she has an unnaturally long life and knows something of the world of the chyerti – lacks the second sight shared by her mother, her sister, her niece, and now her grandniece and that grandniece’s niece. Though tempted by the chance to stay at the house on the lake and learn magic from her great-grandmother, Vasya cuts her recovery time short when she learns that Medved is (1) still in Moscow and (2) being very naughty. With the help of Ded Grib and the firebird who almost burned Moscow to the ground, Vasya frees Morozko from his prison (in case anyone was wondering, he was having a wonderful time) and persuades him to help her stop Medved. Having come to an agreement, the pair of them finally acknowledge their feelings for one another, and they share a passionate night in the bathhouse of Morozko’s prison – you see, I told you he was having a good time.

Meanwhile, Konstantin – acting on Medved’s instructions – spends the summer sucking up to Dmitrii. His high favor is bolstered by his reputation as a miracle-slinging man of God, though all of his miracles are rigged by Medved. At this point in his holy career, Konstantin is a deeply dissatisfied atheist. Having turned from God, whose voice he has never heard, he has accepted Medved as his new leader, if not exactly an actual deity, and the two of them have been running a very efficient racketeering scheme built on the faith of others. For his supposed good works, Konstantin has been made a Bishop, little joy though it brings him. Despite the title, he remains little more than Medved’s errand boy, and he is also beginning to suspect that sometimes Medved lies. His faith is completely shattered when Vasya returns to Moscow in relatively good health, proving that Medved definitely lied when he told Konstantin she was super dead. Disillusioned and lost in a world that has never rewarded either his loyalty or his faith, Konstantin sacrifices himself in one final, desperate attempt to do something good, allowing Vasya to bind Medved once more. This seems like the end to any reasonable person and also to Vasya, but she is instead coldly informed that the chyerti expected her to come to a different resolution, and that nothing is fixed.

As Dmitrii and Sasha turn their attention to the ever-approaching Tatar threat, Vasya realizes she was meant to unite all of the chyerti, including the two squabbling brothers who never did learn to share. Knowing Morozko will not have the firepower to fight the Tatars until winter, Vasya frees Medved from his prison and binds him to her service, though her constant use of magic – and its concomitant effects upon her grasp of reality – cause others (mostly Morozko) to worry about her sanity. The other chyerti agree to fight alongside Dmitrii’s army in exchange for the promise that the Russian people will be allowed to worship them as before, without fear of persecution; Vasya brokers the deal with Dmitrii and the Christian priesthood, and they come to an understanding just in time to join forces in the battle of Kulikovo. Victory is bittersweet: the Russians win, but Sasha is mortally wounded during single combat with Tatar warrior Chelubey, and he dies shortly after Vasya’s arrival. With the Tatars gone and the enmity between Morozko and Medved more or less buried – because they both belong to Vasya, God help her – Vasya regains some of her lost happiness when Medved brings Solovey back to life in payment of his debt to Morozko. While Medved takes off for a life of wild freedom (within reasonable limits, as Vasya reminds him), Vasya and Morozko and Solovey all set out for Morozko’s house, after which Vasya will return to her great-grandmother to take up her place as the new guardian in the house on the lake.

Let’s get the bloody obvious out of the way. I hate Konstantin and I want bad things to happen to him. As far as exaggeratedly hateable characters go, I find him more one-dimensional and less sympathetic than Tyler Cai, and I hated Tyler Cai. Konstantin is a petty little man with unkind instincts, and in my opinion he deserves the misery he brought onto his own head. He throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get enough attention from his original God and embraces a much more cynical deity, and, whether he happens to be feeling devout or not, he still causes a hell of a lot more damage than Vasya ever does. I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to include that time she almost burned Moscow to the ground, because it was an unanticipated accident and because Konstantin’s damage is far more insidious and intentional. I almost cheered when Dmitrii finally turned on him, because by that point in the book and the series I had absolutely no faith in Arden, and for all I knew Dmitrii really was boneheaded enough to take Konstantin’s word over Sasha’s. It was seriously gratifying to learn that Dmitrii had distrusted Konstantin all along.

With all of that said, I am faintly disgruntled at how much I liked this book. The beginning was rough, not gonna lie. I would’ve been forgiven for thinking that torturing Vasya was Arden’s kink and in fact I did think that, but I promise it does get better. At the end of The Girl in the Tower I was all but praying that Vasya would spend the next book harnessing her own innate magic rather than relying on the help of the chyerti, and I got that wish. The Winter of the Witch is powerful, emotional, deeply satisfying. I love Vasya so much that I named one of my Shop Titans characters after her. She is the kind of heroine I wish we could have in The Handmaid’s Tale YES I AM STILL BITTER THAT JUNE SUCKS LEMME ALONE. She is scrappy and tough, resourceful without being pushy, smart without being arrogant or entitled, iron-willed without being obnoxious. I love that she learns to make that magic do what she wants, and that she’s strong enough to keep it from driving her insane despite the dire predictions of the chyerti. I’m not thrilled that she feels such a need to seek the approval of men, particularly Dmitrii, but she’s a teenager and she’s human, burdened with a glorious purpose no one ever bothers to explain to her. I love that she is respectful to the chyerti without becoming a doormat for the kind of bullshit Lady Midnight tries to pull with the whole “Well, you needed to figure it out for yourself so that’s why we didn’t tell you,” like, okay, Dumbledore. Fuck that shit. I fucking hate that argument, fucking just tell me what you want and I’ll figure out the equation you used to get there later. We’re kind of on a deadline here.

That little stumble aside, I adore Vasya’s ability to befriend chyerti – even the ones who are dangerous or just difficult – wherever she goes. Even if the world rarely loves her, she has a talent for drawing out the loyalty and strength of the fading chyerti. I even love her relationships with the idiot twins who nearly ripped apart the world, or just Rus’, before she smacked some sense into them. I still feel The Girl in the Tower lacks the humor and warmth of The Bear and the Nightingale, but the final third of The Winter of the Witch is so sharply funny in its exploration of the sibling-like relationship between Vasya and Medved that I can’t be disappointed anymore. I love Medved, who is not evil so much as maliciously impish and frequently dishonest. The chaos that follows him everywhere is a part of his nature, and he is inseparable from it. I love how happy it makes him, it’s actually borderline adorable. And yet he can still love, in his way, and he still grieves Konstantin enough to ask Morozko to bring him back. I have anticipated many of the twists in this series, but that was one I would never have seen coming. His relationship with Vasya is so darkly sweet, because he trolls her the way he would a little demon sister and it’s great. I love it. Give me more of it.

As for Vasya’s biological siblings, I am mad that Sasha dies, especially after an absolutely beautiful scene in which he tells Vasya all about their mother and her relationship with the chyerti around Lesnaya Zemlya, but apparently that’s actual history because there really was an Aleksandr Peresvet who died fighting a Tatar named Chelubey right before the real-life battle of Kulikovo, so I guess I can’t get mad at the book for that. But I am just slightly dissatisfied, because none of the other Petrovich children is ever seen after the end of The Bear and the Nightingale. I would have loved to check in with Alyosha and Irina, just for the purposes of closure. I was hoping and hoping that the series would come full circle, and it mostly did, but I really need to know that the rest of Vasya’s family is doing okay because I love both Alyosha and Irina and I wouldn’t even mind if Kolya poked his head in. But on the other hand, I am so very glad that Vasya manages a stronger reconciliation with Sasha and Olga after Arden got done tearing their relationship to pieces. I love knowing that Olga’s daughter Marya will most likely join Vasya in the house on the lake. Even if Vasya did make it possible for the chyerti to exist in an increasingly Christian world, nobody can say how long that’s going to last, and I like that Marya will have the option of living in a place where she won’t be punished for cultivating a relationship with her local chyerti. In much the same way that I hate Konstantin, I love Marya and I want good things to happen to her. I never want her to suffer the way Vasya has.

When all is said and done, this was a very solid trilogy. The length of the series is perfect. I’m glad there isn’t a fourth book. I don’t think my heart could handle another 400 or so pages of the world spitting on Vasya, and I am satisfied with this ending. If I’m honest, each of the three installments felt like two separate books anyway, because they are packed with so much information. Like I said last review, Arden doesn’t do simple. But at the same time, I honestly don’t know which parts I would cut out, supposing I were asked to condense the books. As much as I complain about Konstantin, I don’t feel any part of these stories was frivolous or poorly planned. It all fits together, once you have the whole picture. And that, for me, is the charm of this series. It wasn’t the easiest read, but it didn’t leave me confused. I have no questions, a rare enough miracle in itself. Even if I didn’t care for the second book, the first and the third more than make up for that gap. The magical folklore vibe is immaculate and Vasya is the badass heroine we need, even if we rarely deserve her, and I would happily follow her journey a second time.