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The Winter of the Witch

January 27, 2019

Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch picks up immediately following the climactic conflagration at the end of The Girl in the Tower, and the events of this last novel in the series center around Vasya’s efforts to balance the needs and demands of different kinds of people and the invisible spirits that move them with her own attempt to stay connected to her family and to reality itself.

As the novel opens, Solovey is dead and Vasya is about to be burned as a witch by a mob gathered by the priest Konstantin. But the “winter king” spirit, Morozko, has freed his one-eyed brother-spirit Medved, “the Bear,” in order to save Vasya, and has sent him to her with a token, a wooden bird carved like a nightingale. Medved “loves destruction and chaos, and will seek to sow it as he can.” He aligns himself with Konstantin and begins bringing the dead back to life.

I’m going to excerpt most of an entire story here, one about necromancy, as it will give you the flavor of this excellent book:
In another part of Moscow, in the black and frigid hour before dawn, a peasant man and his wife lay awake atop his brother’s oven. They had lost their izba, their possessions, and their firstborn in the fires of the night before, and neither of them had slept since.
A light, insistent tapping came from the window.
Tap. Tap.
Below them, on the floor, the brother’s family stirred. The knocking went on, steady, monotonous, first at the window, then at the door. “Who could that be?” muttered the husband.
“Someone in need perhaps,” said his wife, voice hoarse from the tears she had shed that day. “Answer it.”
Her husband reluctantly slid down from the oven. He stumbled to the door, over the complaining bodies of his brother’s family. He opened the inner door, unbarred the outer door.
His wife heard him give a single, sobbing gasp, and then nothing. She hurried up beside him.
A small figure stood in the doorway. Its skin was blackened and flaking away; you could see hints of white bone through rents in his clothing. “Mother?” it whispered.
The dead child’s mother screamed, a scream to wake the dead—but the dead were already awake—a scream to awaken their neighbors, sleeping uneasily with the memory of fire. People opened their shutters, opened their doors.
This child did not go into the house. Instead he turned away and began walking up the street. He walked drunkenly, lurching from side to side. His eyes, in the moonlight, were bewildered and afraid and intent all at once. “Mother?” he said again.
Above, on either side, the awakened neighbors stared and pointed. “Mother of God.”
“Who is that?”
“What is that?”
“A child?”
“Which child?”
“Nay—God defend us—that is little Andryusha—but he is dead…”
The voice of the child’s mother rose up. “No!” she cried. “No, I am sorry; I am here. Little one, don’t leave me.”
She ran after the dead boy, tripping on the half-frozen earth. Her husband ran stumbling out after her. There was a priest among the awed crowd on the street; the husband seized him and dragged him along. “Batyushka, do something!” he cried. “Make it go! Pray—”
“Upyr!”
The word—the dread word of legend and nightmare and fairy tale—was taken up from house to house, as understanding dawned. The word hissed its way down the street, up and back down, growing and growing until it became a moan, a scream.
“The dead boy. He is walking. The dead are walking. We are cursed. Cursed!”
Every instant the turmoil grew. Clay lamps were lit; torches made gold points of light under the sickly moon. Cries flew. People fainted, or wept, or called down God’s aid. Some opened their doors and ran out to see what the trouble was. Others barred their doors tight and set their families to praying.
Still the dead child walked on unsteady legs, up the hill of he kremlin.
“Son!” panted his mother, running at the thing’s side. She still did not dare touch him; the way he moved, ill-jointed, was not the way the living moved. But in his eyes—she was sure of it—lay something of her son. “My child, what horror is this? Has God sent you back to us? Have you come to give us a warning?”
The dead child turned and said “Mother?” again, in a soft, high voice.
“I am here,” whispered the woman, putting out a hand. The skin of his face peeled away at her touch. Her husband shoved the priest forward. “Do something, for God’s sake.”
The priest, his lips quivering stumbled forward, and raised a trembling hand. “Apparition, I charge thee…”
The child looked up, his eyes dull. The crowd drew back, crossing themselves, watching… The child’s eyes wandered around the assembled faces.
“Mother?” the child whispered one last time. And lunged.
Not fast; injury and death had weakened the thing, made it clumsy on its half-grown limbs. But the woman put up no resistance. The vampire buried its face in her wrinkled throat.
She gave a gurgling cry of pain and of love, and clutched the thing to her, gasping in agony and crooning to the thing in the same breath. “I’m here,” she whispered again.
And then the little dead creature was painting itself with her blood, jerking its head back and forth in a mockery of infancy.
People were running, screaming.
Then a voice rang out from the street above, and Father Konstantin came down, walking fast, fierce, dignified, his gold hair silver in the moonlight.
“People of God,” he said. “I am here; fear no darkness.” His voice was like church-bells at dawn. His long robe snapped and flared behind him. He thrust his way past the husband, who had fallen to his knees, one hand helplessly outstretched.
Crisp as a man drawing a sword, he made the sign of the cross.
The child upyr hissed. Its face was black with blood.
There was a one-eyed shadow behind Konstantin, watching the tawdry, bloody encounter with delight, but no one saw it. Not even Konstantin, who was not looking. Perhaps he had forgotten in that moment that it was not his voice alone that bid the dead rest.
“Back, devil,” Konstantin said. “Get back to where you came. Do not trouble the living again.”
The little vampire hissed. The wavering crowd had paused in its flight; the nearest watched with frozen fascination. For a long moment, the upyr and the priest seemed to lock eyes in a terrible battle of wills. The only sound was the gurgling breath of the dying woman.
An observant person might have noticed that the dead thing was not looking at the priest, but beyond him. Behind Konstantin, the one-eyed shadow jerked its thumb in a peremptory gesture, the way a man dismisses a dog.
The vampire snarled again, but softly, as the power that had given it life and breath and movement faded. It crumpled onto its mother’s breast. No one could tell if the final sound from the pair was her last breath or his.
The husband stared at the corpses of his family: empty, shocked and still. But the crowd was not looking at him. “Go back,” hissed the Bear into Konstantin’s ear. “They think you a saint; it is not the time to stand about. So much as sneeze and you ruin the effect.”
Konstantin Nikonovich, surrounded by faces slack with awe, knew that perfectly well. He made the sign of the cross over them all again: a benediction. Then he swept back up the narrow street, striding through the darkness, hoping he wouldn’t trip on a frozen rut in the road. People drew back before him, weeping.

By the end of this novel, which ends the trilogy, Morozko and Medved manage to work together to bring back from the dead someone we’ve all missed, and it’s a lovely moment, free from any forebodings of the usual penalties for necromancy because they have restored a balance: “there are no monsters in the world, and no saints. Only infinite shades woven into the same tapestry, light and dark. One man’s monster is another man’s beloved.”

Vasya, who really has become a witch in the sense that she can make things happen by concentrating on them, learns that “magic makes men mad. They forget what is real because too much is possible.” She does not go mad, however, as she is also learning how to keep the world and its people and spirits in balance with each other. She meets Baba Yaga and finds out how “this witch and that were woven into a single fairy tale,” which reminds readers that her own character is based on a very old Russian fairy tale about Vasilisa the beautiful, sometimes known as Vasilisa the brave.

In this third book of the Winternight trilogy, Arden continues to build on old tales and manages to bring her own characterizations and increasingly intricate plot to an exciting and deeply satisfying conclusion.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2019 11:13 am

    That’s awesome that you finished out this series. I still have yet to start it. I’m glad you enjoyed the ending. Fantastic review!

    • February 13, 2019 2:31 pm

      It’s good to know that a series of three novels has a good ending before you start reading the first one!

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