I know I’m deviating from my posting schedule, but that’s because I wanted to make the most of my writing time before university starts again a week from now. Okay, and also because I am so in love with the Winternight trilogy that I am bursting to talk about it!!!
Seriously, why did I put off reading this for so long? The first book had been on my goodreads “want to read” shelf for ages, and yet, year after year, I didn’t pick it up. Then, however, I promised that whoever guessed the most books correctly on my Can You Guess My Favorite Books? post could pick a favorite book of theirs for me to read, and Line from First Line Reader suggested The Bear and the Nightingale. And since Line has excellent taste in books, The Bear and the Nightingale was on my radar anyway, and I was just itching to splurge on books as a reward for finally being done with exams, I went ahead and ordered the whole trilogy. And then binge read it over the course of three days.
Honestly, guys, this series is everything I ever could have asked for. A fantasy trilogy set in 14th century Russia, this is exactly the type of slow, atmospheric read that makes you want to curl up in a chair with a hot drink as the weather turns cold outside. I completely forgot about everything that was going on around me and got lost in a tale about a girl called Vasya, who grows up at the edge of the Russian wilderness listening to fairy tales about the frost-demon that haunts the night. But Vasya knows that these are more than just tales – she can see the creatures no one else can: the domovoi that lives in the oven, the vazila in the stables, the rusalka that tries to drag unsuspecting people to the depths of its lake. Her life soon becomes intricately connected to the tales she heard during her childhood, and her and her family’s lives are put in danger as things start changing in Rus’.
I loved everything. The writing, the characters, the setting – all of it was so fleshed out, you couldn’t help but believe it was real. And, obviously, I loved how heavily inspired the series was by Russian culture. If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been learning Russian for more than a year now, and that going to Russia in 2019 was one of the coolest experiences in my lifetime. Reading this trilogy transported me back to that trip, and also taught me so many new things about Russian history and culture!
Anyway, that’s pretty much it as far as non-spoilers go. If you haven’t read this series yet and any of this sounds at all intriguing to you, I highly recommend you go pick this up! It might be my favorite thing I’ve read so far this year, and it goes without saying that I gave all three books a full five-star rating. 😊
Review Excited Gushing – With Lots of Spoilers, Obviously
You’ve probably realized by now that the more I love something, the more incoherent my thoughts get 😁 So I’ve attempted to organize this a little bit, but, realistically, you’re still going to get a lot of rambling…
The Writing (and a bunch of trivia about Russian that I couldn’t keep to myself)
A girl rode a bay horse through a forest late at night. This forest had no name. It lay far from Moscow – far from anything – and the only sound was the snow’s silence and the rattle of frozen trees.The Girl in the Tower, p. 3
First, can I just say that I am completely in love with the way Katherine Arden writes? Her style is so whimsically lyrical that I was entranced from page one. Seriously, I need this woman to teach me how to paint with words like she does!
I also appreciated how much knowledge went into these books. You could tell that the author had done tons of research on Russian fairy tales and history, that she was familiar with the culture, and that she poured her heart and soul into this masterpiece. Katherine Arden lived in Moscow for a year and then studied French and Russian literature at university, and it shows. All descriptions were so vivid and intricate, and I loved how many language snippets she included. Everything, especially the names, had meaning behind them, and I had so much fun tying the Russian in this book to what I had already learnt.
I knew immediately who “the bear” in the title was, because медведь (medved) is the Russian word for ‘bear’. [Which is, in turn, derived from the word for ‘honey’, мëд.] The word domovoi comes from дом (‘house’), dvorovoi from двор (‘yard, courtyard’), Morozko from мороз (‘frost’). These books taught me the words for ‘nightingale’ (соловей) and ‘mist’ (туман). I could go on, but I think you get the point – for a language nerd like me, this series was a dream!
And you wouldn’t believe how much I appreciated the correct use of Russian first names in this book! Honestly, it’s astounding how many Western movies set in Russia get this wrong. Just recently, my mom and I were watching this drama about the Romanovs, and there was this peasant boy everyone kept calling “Nicky”. Which drove me nuts. The diminutive of Николай (Nikolai) is Коля (Kolya), not Nicky. That and several other weird inconstancies made it abundantly clear that the writers had just made use of a bunch of stereotypes that sounded interesting but hadn’t really put much effort into research. But Katherine Arden did, and it made her world all the more real to me 🥰
Also, is it just me, or did this whole series feel like a really long fairy tale? I know that it draws heavily on Russian folklore, but sometimes, it really sounded like my grandmother was telling me a story. The writing just flowed so naturally and beautifully, and I immediately felt inspired to pick up some of Pushkin’s fairy tales again, just to compare. Although they have so many words I don’t know that it will probably be a very long process until I’ve read all of them…
All the characters in the book were amazing. Even the villains had their sympathetic moments, so that I kept hoping that, maybe, they’d see the error of their ways and repent. Everyone felt fleshed out and real, everyone had flaws and failings.
First, there’s Vasya. I absolutely adored her! The way she wouldn’t let anyone tell her what to do, the way she stuck up for her way of life and tried to single-handedly keep the chyerti alive when other people stopped believing – my heart went out to her. And she had so many wonderful moments… All those times when she told Konstantin off, when she stole that stuck-up Kyril’s horse to go after Seryozha (thank God that marriage didn’t work out), when she took Marya riding without permission, every time she refused to do what Morozko told her: it was awesome! And then she went and dressed as a boy so she could travel, fight and dabble in politics! Why didn’t anyone tell me this series included this trope? I would have read it so much sooner!
Then, Morozko. After Solovey, he’s probably my second-favorite character in the entire series. I loved how he had this dark, cold, “I reap the dead”-side to him, but was also the only one who fully understood Vasya and let her live her life without judging her every second of the way. And boy, did he and Vasya have chemistry. It immediately made me forget any initial thoughts I had about Konstantin and Vasya maybe getting together (Ugh, I know. I don’t know what I was thinking 😅). And that bathhouse scene we got in The Winter of the Witch? It was everything I had never even dreamed of asking for. And then Vasya went and introduced him to Olga has her demon-boyfriend, and my heart just couldn’t take how adorable it was…
Since I already talked about Konstantin a little, let’s continue. Boy, did I grow to hate him. He was the perfect example of how terrible things can be done in the name of religion, things that go against everything Christianity is supposed to teach. And at first, I had hope. He was clearly smitten with Vasya, even though he did not want to admit it to himself. I kind of shipped it (because Morozko wasn’t in the picture yet, obviously). But then he went off the deep end completely, succumbing to the voices of the Bear and Kaschei, and forgetting God in his love of being admired and feared. Let’s just say that he probably got what he deserved.
Speaking of monasteries, I also loved Sasha. He reminded me of Vasya in how he stood up for taking his own path, and the way he was always there for his sister, even if it meant lying to Dimitrii, almost had me tearing up. In fact, the family bonds in this series were pretty amazing in general. Dunya, Pyotr, Alyosha, Irina, Olga, Sasha, and even the little bit we got to see of Kolya – I loved it all. And Sasha’s sacrifice at the end was so sad, but it made the series so much stronger. I hate when, in fantasy series with huge stakes, everyone miraculously survives until the end, so I’m glad this series gave us a bit of heartbreak. And it wasn’t just Sasha – Vasya’s parents, Olga’s newborn child, and even Anna Ivanovna. It was all just so, so tragic.
The thing that almost destroyed me, though, was Solovey‘s death. That horse was just the purest thing ever, and I sobbed my way through The Winter of the Witch, thinking he was gone forever. I will never forgive you for this, Katherine Arden, never! Still, I suppose it gave us the chance to get to know Pozhar, and I did love her, too. No one could ever have replaced Solovey, though.
There are so many other characters I could talk about, but, since this review is already getting hopelessly long as it is, I think I’ll just mention in a closing sentence how much I loved all of the chyerti. Some of them, like the domovoi and Ded Grib, were so innocent and cute, and others, like Midnight or the bagiennik, such clever schemers. I really need to read up more on some of these fairy tales!
Anyway, I think I’ll keep it at that for now – if you’d like me to gush about anything else, feel free to mention it in the comments and we can continue from there 😉
Also, if you know of any books with similar vibes that you think I’d enjoy, please tell me! The only one that I’ve read so far is Otfried Preußler’s Die Abenteuer des starken Wanja (The Adventures of Strong Vanya), a German fantasy novel that is also based on Russian mythology and pretty dang good (though I won’t vouch for the English translation).
And if you’ve read the Winternight trilogy (which I sincerely hope you have if you’ve made it this far), let me know what you thought of it! Even if you hated it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!