#1 The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
[Beware, spoilers ahead.]
Book-wise, this year hasn’t started at all on the right foot. My Goodreads is full of 3 stars ratings and even some 2 stars have been thrown out there. The streak of average books has been broken when I began the Winternight trilogy.
The Bear and the Nightingale is the first volume of this trilogy. The title had me hooked from the start.
Even though I’m from the Eastern side of Europe I’m not familiar with Russian fairy tales and myths, so I was excited to explore this universe which offers glimpses into such a phantasmal world.
Vasya, the youngest of her family and whose mother died just after birthing her, is the main character. She is unusual, also in her beauty which many do not see or appreciate, but also in her adventurous personality judged in that era to be unfitting for a girl or a woman. She is a wild creature, eager to explore the forest of Lesnaya Zemlya, where she lives with her father Pyotr, nanny Dunya, sister Olya and brothers Kolya, Sasha and Alyosha. The father is a boyar and her late mother was the daughter of a prince of Moscow. The magical attributes seem to run in the family, as the girl’s grandmother is rumored to have been a witch, a woman of great beauty and a wanderer who came one day into Moscow on a horse, no one knowing from where or why.
From the first chapters, we are familiarized with the concept of chyerti, spirits/demons who are tied to a certain household or forest or lake or other parts of nature with the duty of protecting it. They are the subject of Russian fairytales, feared but also respected and even though the country was now Christian people still left little offerings for the chyerti.
Another grand figure is he called Morozko. The frost king. And on the other side of the coin Death itself, he who leads the dead.
This beautifully written story is mainly the tale of how Vasya discovers who and what she is, how she copes with everything that is being revealed to her and how a great threat can change even the bravest of people.
As Vasya grows, her brothers and sister follow their own path which leads them far from Lesnaya Zemlya, leaving her with only her father, Dunya, her brother Alyosha and her new stepmother, Anna and baby stepsister Irina. The forest and its creatures, the horses and their quite way turn out to be a greater joy for her than what her stepmother and her stepmother’s jumpy and nervous way. Her special relationship with animals is thoroughly illustrated through her capacity of talking to horses, and especially to the wonderful friendship she later develops with the horse named Solovey.
She has her first meeting with the chyerti and discovers mysteries unknown to others. She meets with Morozko and even with his evil twin, Medved. She is faced with yet another challenge when a new priest arrives in their little village. Konstantin Nikonovich. With his golden hair and golden voice, he traps the hearts and faiths of many, turning them against the chyerti and the old ways and bringing closer a looming evil. Nikonovich himself is a deeply troubled character and in my eyes a convincing villain who continuously justifies his own dreary convictions by invoking God and his will.
This tale is full of magic, mysteries, long forgotten gods and creatures and a girl who defies the laws and principles of the times she’s living it. It is masterfully written, every word like a sweet poem in your ears, the characters full of life and compelling back stories making you to never want to put the book down. It’s really not your typical YA, and I loved that about it, so it’s highly appropriate to high fantasy enthusiasts alike.
Overall rating: 5 stars
Goodreads link: The Bear and the Nightingale
#2 The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
After the events of the first book, Vasya finds herself alone, cast from her village after being accused of witchcraft and bringing the demons with her. Her father Pyotr is now dead adding yet another sorrow to carry on her shoulders. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the prince Dmitrii is faced with yet another challenge, when his trusted man Sasha, who is not only a monk but also a traveler and a fighter comes with news of bandits burning the villages and taking prisoner young girls. The information is confirmed when a mysterious boyar names Kasyan comes with the same gruesome news from his lands and asks for the prince’s help.
Meanwhile, father Nikonovich, who made my life hell in the previous volume is back, spreading untruths about Vasya and blaming her for her father’s death in front of her sister, Olya. As any respectable villain, father Nikonovich seems to live forever and dive even deeper into the pits of mischievousness and hell.
Dmitrii and Sasha venture into the land attacked by bandits only to find no trace left after burning the villages and no way to track them, it’s as though they vanished into thin air. While they linger in one of the villages a mysterious boy returns with two girls who have been previously captured by these bandits, a boy who turns out to be Vasya. In order to protect her from the misconceptions of that age, Sasha decides to go on with her ruse and pretends that she’s actually his brother, lying to the men and also to the Grand Prince. Things become even more complicated as Vasya is taken under Dmitrii’s wing and invited to Moscow. As she is enjoying her freedom while posing as a boy, it’s a dangerous business and she’s walking a thin line by deceiving powerful people.
One of the high points of this book is her relationship with Solovey. That horse is such a marvel to have around. Not to forget his once-in-a-while sarcastic comments thrown out there at the right time.
What’s also interesting is that we finally have a glimpse into what Sasha and Olya have been doing after they left Lesnaya Zemlya, how things haven’t turn out to be as flawless as they envisioned. The opinion of men on women is constantly being a challenge throughout this book, as Vasya struggles to live a full life, meaning much more than women of the century were supposed to do.
Her relationship with Morozko continues to develop and surprise everyone, the chyerti are there at every corner and bits of family history are finally revealed, only to leave you asking yourself more questions.
All in all, it’s a lovely second book, with the same compelling writing, loveable, relatable and wondrous characters, a plot that will keep you up all night biting your nails and in-between all the magic bits you could wish for.
Overall rating: 5 stars
Goodreads link: The Girl in the Tower
#3 The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
Like every meaningful journey, every fairytale must have an ending. This book was a hell of a good one.
From the first pages, there was a lot of tension a sense of emergency, as Moscow is just recovering from a great fire, there’s been an attempt to kill the Grand Prince Dmitrii, the people are following mischievous father Konstantin Nikonovich who pleads his case blaming every bad thing that befell Moscow on Vasya. She finds herself in a tight spot when everything seems to crumble around her, misfortune threatening everyone she loves.
Morozko is fading with the upcoming summer, his powers diminishing, and as a desperate attempt to save Vasya from a terrible fate he unleashes his twin Medved on Moscow. Obviously, things don’t go according to plan (when do they actually?) and Medved is tired of years of imprisonment and has his own personal agenda for himself and the chyerti. Vasya disagrees with his methods and flees into a magical realm, the road of Midnight, a bewitched place where you can travel through all the midnights. There she unravels even more of her ancestry and shapes her own path into the looming war. She faces many perils while searching for Morozko and then trying to save Russia itself. She finds new powers in herself, powers which come at a great cost but are astonishing nevertheless.
It’s a tale where even the worst of the characters can prove to be a powerful ally at the right time, where sacrifices are made, a story of loss, love and how the land can shape its people and spirits.
I felt there was a masterful cohesiveness with the other two books, all the characters had engaging stories and destinies, the prose was superb as always and the tension building was magnificent. The only small (teeny tiny) observation I have is that when I reach 65% so much had already happened that I almost expected it to be the end; what followed was logical and entertaining, but maybe some parts of the last confrontation weren’t 100% needed. Nevertheless, this book is a winner and an epic conclusion to this exceptional series. I loved, loved, loved it, so if you’re a lover of magic, fairytales and Russian folklore, or you’re just searching for something to pump you up and keep you reading this trilogy is a winner.
Overall rating: 5 stars
Goodreads link: The Winter of the Witch
The Bear and the Nightingale
The Girl in the Tower
The Winter of the Witch