Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy weaves stories of Russian folklore in an atmospheric tale of adventure, wildness, love, loss, magic, daring, difficult decisions, and moral ambiguity.
The story begins on the fringes of the Russian wilderness. Folk endure the harsh winters, observe their superstitions and provide offerings to the household spirits, as they always have. Then there is the new, civilised Christian ways sweeping through medieval Russia instilling the fear of God, forcing people to abandon traditional Russian customs. This provides the backdrop for an atmospheric tale weaving the conflicts of men, spirits, and Vasya – our main character.
Vasya sets herself apart from her family and the villagers by resisting the expectations placed on her. She is not interested in marriage, children, or performing the other duties expected of women. All she wants is freedom to explore the world. We follow her journey, the conflicts within herself, amongst her family and her place in the wider world.
Vasya’s tale is told over three novels: The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, and The Winter of the Witch. You can’t help but feel the deep chill in Arden’s depictions of the Russian winters. I made the mistake of reading the second book at the height of summer. Sweating on the train during my commute did not fit with the deep chill of Vasya’s world. Delaying reading the final book until this winter was a great decision I think. That way I could rug up against the cold and immerse myself in the conclusion to Vasya’s tale.
Here are some of my favourite quotes from the series:
- “Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”
- “You shouldn’t have told them I was a girl. Then they might have believed that I was dangerous.”
- The first day ran on as an adventure might, with home behind and the whole world before them.
- Vasya did not return the bow. “To small minds,” she told him, spine very straight, “any skill must look like sorcery.”
- He looked rueful. “I think that between us we have sealed the murky reputation of bathhouses.”
- Men will suck all the wildness out of the world, until there is no place for a witch-girl to hide.
- The sun was like a mallet between the eyes.
- “All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”
- I did not know I was lonely, she thought, until I was no longer alone.
- Maslenitsa was the three-day sun-feast, one of the oldest holidays in Muscovy. Older by far than the bells and crosses that marked its passing, though it had been given the trappings of religion to mask its pagan soul.
- Witch. The word drifted across his mind. We call such women so, because we have no other name.
- “The more one knows, the sooner one grows old,” snapped the domovaya. “Hold still.”
- Polunochnitsa said softly, “There is no north in Midnight, no south. No east or west; no here or there. You must only hold your destination in your mind and walk, and not falter in the darkness, for there is no telling how long it will take to get where you wish to go.”
- “What I say to him is not your concern,” said Vasya coldly. “It most certainly is,” said Medved. “But I can wait. I like surprises.”