Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden


While browsing in the Wallingford Bookshop in that medieval market town in England, I was drawn to the gorgeous cover of The Bear and The Nightingale (January 2017). The writing inside was equally beautiful. Set in a remote village in northern Russia, this new fantasy series draws on local folklore and history. Author Katherine Arden spent her gap year in Russia before studying its literature at Middlebury College. Her mastery of the language and culture grounds the medieval fairy-tale in its historical context.


In The Bear and the Nightingale, young Vasya runs wild in the woods, refusing to conform to traditional gender roles, antagonizing her miserable stepmother. Her ability to see spirits also puts Vasya at odds with a handsome young priest, who is trying to establish Christianity in their farming community on the edge of the wilderness. Vasya fears being labeled a witch, but she also needs to warn her family of the threats only she perceives. The line between right and wrong often blurs, depending on perspective. I loved how the demons were as well developed and as morally ambiguous as the mortals and how winter was both a character and a setting.
"Moscow, just past Midwinter, and the haze of ten thousand fires rose to meet a smothering sky. To the west a little light lingered, but in the east the clouds mounded up, bruise-colored in the livid dusk, buckling with unfallen snow." 
-The Girl in the Tower
In The Girl in the Tower (December 2017), teenage Vasya disguises herself as a boy and sets out on a magical horse to see the real world, encountering spirits, bandits, and storms on the icy trail. She is more afraid of being sent to a convent or confined to a palace tower in Moscow, like her princess sister. Feminism is a difficult fit for the times. This second book in the Winternight trilogy was even better than the first, now that the protagonist has matured into a young woman. The sequel combines literary style with a page-turner mystery, less horrific than the first book but equally surreal.

Although this series was published as adult fantasy, it could as easily be young adult fiction, given the age of the protagonist and the content. I bought both for my sixteen-year-old niece, who loved them as much as I did. We're eagerly awaiting The Winter of the Witch, due to be published in August. I prefer the British cover art as shown, which looks more Russian than the American editions. I'd strongly recommend these books to historical fiction and fantasy readers of all ages, especially to fans of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. They are just the right books for this never ending winter!

I also have an excellent audiobook recommendation: Long Way Down, a YA novel in verse read by the author, Jason Reynolds: An African American boy, set on revenging the gang shooting death of his older brother, encounters the spirits of his past in the elevator.

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@Barrie Summy

12 comments:

troutbirder said...

Interesting. Refusing to conform to conform to traditional gender roles to the disdain of one parents is definitely an "in" topic these days. I finally got to Monks The Invention of Wings. Russian folk tales from the dark and scary woods could only add to the fright. I'll take a courage pill and follow up on your recommendation...:)

Barrie said...

Did you see that Ellen Booraem reviewed Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman? You two are on the same wavelength. :) I feel a good fantasy read is in my future! Thank you so much for reviewing. And thank you for including photos. Love the British cover, btw.

Powell River Books said...

Seems like these days there are many crossover books that appeal to both adults and youth. Maybe young people want to feel more mature, and older people want to recapture their youth. - Margy

Linda McLaughlin said...

This sounds great and I loved the evocative quote you shared. Thanks for the review and for the pictures of the Wallingford book store.

wheelerph said...

What a wonderful review! I need to read these, I can see. Phyllis Wheeler

Donna said...

I've had this on my reading list for awhile. Thanks for the review. This makes me want to read it and its sequel(s) even more.

Charlotte Agell said...

Lovely tips

Jenn Jilks said...

I've enjoyed your review.
Great photos, as always. I laud your travels, as well!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for these fabulous books!

Barrie, I was delighted to see Ellen's review of another book I was planning to buy for my niece. I love how we shape our collective reading tastes and choices. Thanks for hosting the book review club!

Jenn Jilks said...

Thanks for the info! There is so much to learn. And I keep forgetting things!!! :-0

Rose said...

Hi, Sarah! Though I don't usually read fantasy, these two books sound very intriguing. As always, your review is excellent. I haven't been blogging as much the past year and have lost my motivation to join in the monthly Book Review Club, sadly. But I have to mention my favorite book of 2017 was "Beartown" by Fredrik Backman. Well-written and very timely subjects; highly recommend!

thecuecard said...

I have heard good things about this trilogy ... so glad to read your review of the first two. I like the Russian medieval aspects of it. I will look for it at the library. thanks!