This is Katherine Arden’s first entry in her Winternight Trilogy, which I have heard great things about. After generating enough curiosity out of me I decided it was time I dove in on this trilogy and checked it out for myself. I didn’t look up much about the books before I started reading, only what was on the back cover. It is touted as a darker reimagining of fairytales we all know and love, but anchored in Russian folklore. I knew absolutely nothing of Russian folklore going into this and honestly it is what drew me to the book the most. Russia isn’t a place you would usually think of for a fantasy themed story so I was really looking forward to it as something different from the usual European settings.
The story really is a tale of two halves. The first half of the book focuses on setting the stage. We get to know Vasilisa Petrovna and her family (whose names I can’t imagine pronouncing most of the time). We are also introduced to some of the back story regarding the magic of the world. This first half is slow and plodding and shows us what everyday life looks life for Vasya. I understand the reasoning behind the way it is written and why she needed to go so in depth here to really provide us a good base for the rest of the story, but I feel like it would have benefited from a somewhat quicker pace to get to the action. I found myself getting distracted and losing interest more than I would like to admit and at times wasn’t sure this was one I needed to see through to the end, but there were enough treats on the trail to keep me going and working toward the more exciting things. Once we are introduced to the cheyerti and we start to see some of the more magical elements come into play the story really starts taking off.
The second half of this book leans much more into magic and religion in a compelling fight between “God” and the natural spirits of the land. The most interesting aspect of the book to me personally was the way the spirits, called chyerti (spirits of Russian folklore), begin to weaken due to the villagers beginning to pray to God more and forgetting about them. The priest believes that they are evil and they need to forget about them in order to save themselves with the faith. Little did they know that the chyerti were the only thing saving them from the evil spirits and demons of the forest who would see them harmed. Our main character Vasya can see these spirits and realizes what is happening but the people do not trust her and see her as a crazy witch who is the cause of the demons coming to wreak havoc.
The character who is most actively against Vasya is her stepmother Anna who can also see these spirits but hates them all as they drive her mad. She often takes out her anger of the seeing them on Vasya and is one of the main proponents of calling her a witch and blaming her for everything. I thought she was really well written because I truly didn’t like her. Anytime she took center stage I wanted her Vasya to tell her off in some way or another (which I know she couldn’t do), she was such a dark, looming presence in the story that she felt like a major villain even though she was a mostly quiet and meek woman. The fact that she was married to the mostly loving and caring Pyotr made for a unique dichotomy in Vasya’s life.
Pyotr was important for Vasya but even more important was Dunya. She acted like a mother to all of the kids and was the one who understood Vasya the best. She was hard on all the kids, even Vasya, but when Vasya acted out and ran into the forest or to the stalls with the horses she cut her some slack and allowed her to be herself. She also understood the value of the chyerti and what they did for the people of the village, which was much needed since she was in charge of giving something important to Vasya that dealt with the more magical realm.
I’d be remiss not to talk about Morozco, the frost king. He seems at first to be an evil presence in the forest but later reveals himself to be much more than that and ends up being something more complex entirely that helps Vasya along her journey and teaches her a thing or two. It’s hard to call him a good guy entirely but he certainly can’t be labeled as bad either. The frost king’s brother, referred to as the bear, was definitely the over arching “bad guy” in the story and the dynamic between the two was interesting as they competed to take control of Vasya for reasons unknown to the reader for much of the story. Once this storyline got into full force the book was at it’s best and at times I couldn’t even put it down. I wanted more of this from Arden and hopefully I can get it in the next two books.
I wanted like the characters more, but none of them really felt like they were all that likable. I suppose this would be a compliment to the way they were written to fit in the world because with the harsh conditions they were dealing with it would make sense for them to each have a bit of an edge to them. The winter and snow were so unforgiving that it created a darker atmosphere that lended itself well to the story of spirits and demons.
Overall I think the book was a fine read and am still interested in finishing the trilogy but just not as crazy about it as I wanted to be. I enjoyed Arden’s writing style and once the action really started I enjoyed the pace. The most compelling thing was they way the Russian folklore was intertwined through the story and the way she brought it to life with her writing. Her descriptions of the chyerti had me picturing them vividly each time. I wanted to like this book more than I did and I’m disappointed I didn’t, but based off the second half of this book I will surely pick up the next one.
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