*This is a spoiler free review*
The vast majority of my all-time favourite books have various things in common. They’re likely to be classed as fantasy, and include some sort of fantastical creature. They’re likely to influenced my mythology, fairytales, and legends. Most will have incredible leading female characters that defy all expectations. Very rarely, they will encompass all of these things.
Allow me to introduce one of my new favourite series: The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, an incredible historical fantasy. The series order is as follows: The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, and The Winter of the Witch.
My first thought when I started The Bear and the Nightingale was that it was beautifully written. The prose is very lavish and poetic in its descriptions, making a wonderful sweeping rhythm as you read. I have heard from a few friends that they found it quite boring and too long in descriptions when they started reading, but personally I found the writing too lovely to care. It definitely does have a slower start, but as I’ve found with all three books the plot picks up. With the first in the series, this perhaps doesn’t happen until the latter half of the novel, which can be expected as Arden is slowly weaving together her world and its characters for the majority of the novel. With the second and third book however, the plot really takes off much sooner and meant that I preferred these over the first title just for the sheer pace they set.
The plots themselves are incredibly well crafted. For me, the first book definitely had that classic, fairytale vibe – you have the legends of Winter Kings, conflicting family dynamics including a new stepmother, a young girl who wants a life not permitted for young girls, and the struggle between old legends and new religion. It’s difficult to say too much about the plots of the following two books, but what I can say is that they both took me by surprise. In the second book, there were plot twists I hadn’t seen and an edge of anxiety throughout as you wait to see whether or not everything will come crashing down around the main protagonist. The third book actually had a huge plot twist that occurred around half way through – and it was here that I had believed the series would end, only to find that Arden reinvents the tropes and creates a far better, more imaginative, conclusive end to such a fantastic series.
Next up: the characters. In the first book, we follow a family that live in Russian wilderness surrounded by forests and lying some distance from Moscow. In particular, we follow the young Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, who is a strange child compared to her siblings. One of the main reasons she is her gift to see the old creatures of Russia, domovoi and other beings that live in houses, stables, woods, and more. When her mother dies, Vasya’s father ventures to Moscow and returns with a devout stepmother who is determined to bring in her new religion (a beloved priest alongside her) and cast out the old beings. When evil in the forest creeps nearer and the battle of new and old truly begins, Vasya must choose whether to obey by marrying or joining a convent, or go against them all and use her gifts to save her family.
Vasya is a fantastic character. Whilst she is very young in the first book, at no point does this diminish her incredible characterisation and Arden’s ability to make you root for her. She makes stupid mistakes through the whole series, but has brilliant growth from each one. In The Bear and the Nightingale, the perspective is mainly Vasya’s – when she is too young, we see Vasya through the eyes of her father and nurse – and the priest who is brought to her home. There is a frost demon (and who doesn’t love the odd frost demon thrown in) who has his own plans that as a reader you are unaware of, along with the smattering of household domovoi who pop up throughout the book. My favourite character is actually not introduced until toward the end of the first book, and just happens to be a horse (but of course).
The atmosphere is just the best thing about this book, and if you like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted then I’m sure you’d adore this series. One of my favourite aspects is of course the various legends and fairytales throughout the books, but storytelling in general. Whether it’s a character telling a legend within the book or Arden herself telling the story of Vasya, the language and narrative are just so stunning that I couldn’t help but sink into the pages.
Originally I didn’t pick up this series as it was always on the romance table, and whilst I love a bit of romance every now and then it just didn’t seem to stand out to me. A colleague however told me that she adored it, and as soon as I knew it was a historical reimagining set in Russia with folklore and fairytales I was in. It was a relief that the third book came out so soon after I picked up the first one, as I’m not sure I could have waited for each new instalment.
So to all of you who are looking for a new series – this is the one to pick up, as the trilogy is completely published! Rejoice for not having to wait for the sequel! If you’re a fan of fantasy I’m sure you’d love it, and for those who are new to fantasy or who don’t read fantasy, this is the perfect book to dip your toes into the magical worlds. It’s a wonderful blend of historical fiction with fantastical elements, and the lush language and wintery atmosphere are ideal for this time of year. It’s enchanting, to put it simply. I can’t recommend it enough.