Rather than criticize things I watch and read, I want to reflect and write about my overall experiences with them using a system I’ve adopted over the years. The questions I usually ask myself are these: What did I learn? How did I feel? How did it enlighten my mind? If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to read my post about it HERE.
A year ago, I finally finished reading the last book in the trilogy. It took me a long time. Honestly, I feared Miss Arden would betray me as many other authors have. I feared the worst because this is a coming of age story for a young girl. Usually, these stories show the girl having a sexual awakening as a final step into adulthood. Authors usually paint this as romantic. But I don’t think they are. To me, they are sad and misleading.
I decided this fear wouldn’t suffice for me. So I took the plunge and read the final book, The Winter of the Witch, wondering how this story would end. My feelings are very muddled, but I do not regret reading this series at all. I am grateful for the lessons these books taught me about myself.
For those who are curious, this tale is steeped in rich Russian folklore. Characters like Morozoko, Polunochnitsa, Baba Yaga, and many others are Russian folk figures artists created before The Russian Orthodox Church trickled into Russian homes. These changes came slowly, first among the monarchy and later to the common people.
Like Germany and France, there are hundreds of Russian folktales. They center on the chyerti, or spirits, and heroes like Vasilisa the Beautiful or Alyosha Popovich who outwitted or sought aid from them. Much like Japanese spirits, these characters are as imperfect as human beings, shifting between good and evil, sometimes never fully taking sides.
This story takes place in medieval Russia as Christianity slowly trickled its way into outlying villages outside of big cities. The heroine is Vasya Petrovna, who can see and talk to chyerti. She grows up amidst the clash of old and new Russia, a wild young woman who learns what happens when one fights against set beliefs and cultures. She desires freedom but painfully learns there is a price for such things. It results in death, sorrow, fire, and frost. But it also leads to maturity, compassion, understanding, and love.
I was very eager to see how Vasya grew into herself. Throughout these stories, she and the people around her call her many things: a witch, an ill-spirited child, and even a boy Vasili. Her identity seems shackled and lost, and her elders predetermined her future. As a woman, she can conventionally choose to be a young lord’s wife or a nun at a convent.
But she doesn’t desire any of these fates. So she fights to build a life of her own. One critic reflected from The Christian Science Monitor, “Vasya (is) a clever, stalwart girl determined to forge her own path in a time when women had few choices. She never meant to hurt others, but again, her desire for freedom came at a heavy cost.” Because she strives to defy her fates people call her a witch and try to kill, beat, or rape her several times. Besides this, her actions hurt many others.
Vasya is like any of us, bound to make mistakes and face the consequences. Some of these consequences are positive, and some are not. Throughout the story, she decides to forge her path in the best way she could with the time she has. I really liked how she learned this truth. When she asked Morozko how she could possibly choose the right path he told her,
“Perhaps I am not so wise as you would have me, for all my years in this world. I do not know what you should choose. Every time you take one path, you must live with the memory of the other: of a life left unchosen. Decide as seems best, one course or the other; each way will have its bitter with its sweet.”– The Girl in the Tower
But she makes decisions passionately, and if confronted with her wrongdoings she tried her hardest to make it right. She became a woman who could proudly say she did everything within her power to devotedly live freely.
I really like a quote from the second book, The Girl in the Tower. One of her brothers Sasha reflected, in seeing who his sister was becoming,
“He had never thought of her as girlish, but the last trace of softness was gone. The quick brain, the strong limbs were there: fiercely, almost defiantly present, though concealed beneath her encumbering dress. She was more feminine than she had ever been, and less. Witch. The word drifted across his mind. We call such women so, because we have no other name.”-The Girl in the Tower
There are very interesting themes intertwining throughout this story, most of them rooted in cultural beliefs on womanhood. And manhood. As a woman, it was expected if you were of higher birth to stay protected and chaste before you were married off to bear children for your husband. If you were unlucky to not be born into a wealthier home, you were the property of the overseeing Lord. Most young women did not have the chance to choose a chaste life. Young Lords made sure of that. It was not so with all, but like so many in history, women were both the symbols of virtue and the victims of men’s passions.
In this story, there is definitely a fight of ideologies concerning womanhood, specifically what it means to be a conventional woman of society. It begs the question, “How should a woman gain her freedom and establish herself among men.” Vasya tries to gain this freedom facing different male characters. Each of them tried to have power over her life because they were men. The Priest Konstantin literally lusted after her and almost caused her death several times. Lord Kasyan wished to bind and use her like he did her grandmother. Her brothers wished to tame her wildness through marriage. Her father loved her but failed to protect her from society’s cruelties because of his own grief. Even Morzoko admittingly wished to use her to his own ends as well.
Suffice it to say, Vasya fought against unwritten laws men established for women. She struggled to protect her virtue, endured terrible cruelty, and learned for herself how loving someone is not bondage but freedom, especially if they reciprocate that love.
The apex of Vasya’s journey is not when she forgoes her chastity. There was no sugar coating what she did, nor false romantic chimes about it through passionate writing. No, she chose the path she wanted, even if it meant being with a being who could not be bound to her in her religion. Men had tried to USE her and bind her and crush her throughout the whole of the series. But she did find, as imperfect as it was, someone who understood her, valued her and needed her.
I will make this clear. I am sad she could not find that love under the right circumstances. It’s so unfortunate she and her people did not understand what marriage is or why chastity is important. It grieves me to know she lived among people who did not value her spirit and passion for freedom. What I believe is most tragic is society’s twisted vision of sexual freedom.
We think too much about sex as an act and not enough of the families born from it. We value passion and lust as expressions of individual freedom and deny ourselves love and security. We think too little of those hurt because people misused and disregarded virtue before and after marriage for a long time.
Thankfully, Katherine Arden’s view and characterizations do not support this. I still felt the emptiness which accompanies these ideas but I like how she showed the contrast between what love is and isn’t.
She portrayed love as sacrifice, as evidenced by Vasya’s father and mother who wished for her to live, her brother who gave his life for his family and people, and Morozko who gave up his own freedom so he could save her and be with her.
She showed how love does not fix problems completely, but how it can give strength and courage.
She showed how loving another isn’t a weakness, as Vasya accepted her feelings and moved forward both with Morozko and her family.
She showed love through grieving and weeping freely for those who are lost.
Finally, she showed how God gave us love so we need not be alone.
In her final novel The Winter of the Witch her character Morozko stated, “Love is for those who know the griefs of time, for it goes hand in hand with loss. An eternity, so burdened, would be a torment. And yet—. . . Yet what else to call it, this terror and this joy?”
Truthfully, I am not giving this story the review it deserves. I really admire Katherine Arden as a writer. I especially admire her ability to confidently write about a character so openly flawed. Though Vasya was made drastic mistakes, she like all of us learned to keep pressing forward. We need more characters like her in books. We need to know it is okay to face one’s fallacies and also possible to overcome our weaknesses.
I recommend this series to everyone. Especially if you love Russia in all its imperfections.
I was so interested in your review of this series. I read the first book and just loved it. The cultural restraints on women was certainly a strong theme, but I was also entranced by the fight for relevance between the old gods of nature and the hearth, and Christianity. Your review gave me a glimpse into where the story goes. The writing is exquisite and I look forward to starting the second book. 🙂
Thank you for reading my review! I’m always happy when what I write inspires others. 🙂 Katherine Arden really is an amazing author. I like her middle grade book series Small Spaces as well.
Someone else recommended that one to me too. I want to finish the Winternight Trilogy first, but I’m certain I’ll get there. Arden’s lyrical writing is some of my favorite.
Diane Setterfied’s The Thirteenth Tale is a well written book too. It grips you like Arden’s book