“It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.” Thus begins The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, inviting readers to a crackling fire around which Dunya, the nurse, whispers an evening story to the children of a boyar. Pyotr Vladimirovich, the boyar, and his family live in the woods of Lesnaya Zemlaya. His wife, Marina, dies in childbirth and the child, Vasilisa ‘Vasya’ Petrovna, inherits her mother’s magical lineage. Vasya can see and talk to spirits of the stables, household and water, much to the chagrin of her city-bred, devout Christian stepmother. She is caught in a battle between the gods, the frost-demon and the Bear, and almost dies. The second book in the series, The Girl in the Tower, follows Vasya as a young lady who wants neither to be a wife nor a nun, both of which would confine her from the outer world. She disguises herself in boy’s clothes and roams lands on her beloved magic horse.
The Winter of the Witch, Arden’s newest, concludes the trilogy. It is more historical in nature and musters the political instability of Rus’ in the fourteenth century. The Grand Prince is choosing allies to prepare for war, the Bear who takes pleasure in chaos of mankind is on a mission to raise an army of ‘chyerti’ (spirits) and the Winter King’s whereabouts are unknown. There are whimsical nuggets in the form of hidden lakes, abandoned cottages, midnight secret roads, and bathhouse spirits. Vasya must restore balance in the men’s world and the unseen realm.
Rich in folklore
Winternight trilogy is redolent of several old Russian folktales. It is heavily influenced by ’Morozko’, where the frost demon gives gifts to a motherless child but kills her step sister, and ’Vasilisa, the Beautiful’, where a motherless girl, sent to Baba Yaga’s cottage by her evil stepmother, wins the witch’s favour’. Slavic mythical beings roam aplenty through medieval Russia. There are domovoi (household spirit), dvorovoi (courtyard guardian), vazila (guardian spirit of stable and livestock), upyr (vampire) and rusalka (female blood thirsty water nymph).
The twins, Morozko, (also called frost-demon or Winter King), and Medved, (also known as chaos-spirit or Bear) remain in a tumultuous relationship in Arden’s world. Morozko is reserved and mysterious while Medved, is ‘the lover of armies, of battles and of violence’, taking pleasure in the downfall of man. Prominent Russian folktale characters like Baba Yaga (the old witch who employs her servants Night, Day and Dusk), Kashchei, the Deathless, Lady Midnight and Lady Midday are deftly stirred in the novels. The frost-demon often addresses Vasya as ’Snegurochka’ or the SnowMaiden, another fairy tale of a girl who appears when the first snow falls and disappears soon after. Their unlikely romance, reminiscent of The Beauty and the Beast is heart-aching and dusted with heady winter magic.
A brief history
The Rus’ were originally a Scandinavian people. In the ninth century, they established a ruling dynasty and their territory comprised the present Ukraine, Belarus and Western Russia. From the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, there was no unified polity and Rus’ lived under many princes who owed allegiance to Mongol overlords. Similar to R.F. Kuang’s depiction of the horrors of Japanese occupation in The Poppy War, Arden employs fantasy to present historical chronicles of old Russia. The Battle of Kulikovo, mentioned in the book, really took place in 1380 where Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich led a combined force of several Russian principalities against the army commanded by Mamai. The victory of Prince Dmitrii heavily weakened the Mongol domination and led to the rise of Muscovite power. This led to Muscovite independence and the formation of modern Russia, few centuries later.
Not your usual trope
The Winternight series stamps down the usual tropes in fantasy. There is no maiden in distress and no prince to be waited for. Vasya is the fiesty ‘frog faced’ heroine on a magic horse; the ‘witch’ feared by her village, and she lets no one steal her thunder. She is deeply flawed and gloriously imperfect. In spite of her aspirations to lead a life off the beaten path, Vasya does not defy her family’s wishes, a reflection of the social norms prevalent in the fourteenth century. The novels also question the explicit line between good and evil for “There are no monsters or saints…One man’s monster is another man’s beloved” and attempts to forge a middle ground.
The bitter, earthy, frigid landscape of Rus’ offers an enchanting setting for the chyerti (spirits) on the brink of extinction and the sweeping wave of Christianity that threatens their existence. Several characters, like Dmitrii and Mamai, who were instrumental in shaping Russian history, are welded in the narrative. The books explore other dimensions of medieval Russian life through Vasya’s married sister, Olga, a conservative royal wife and mother, and her brother, Sasha, a monk who chooses to serve God. Lines blur when Vasya finds herself cast in the fireside fairy tales she grew up on, caught between the oppressive world of men and a fairy tale kingdom that is seldom kind to maidens.
Arden surprises her readers with every sequel being distinctly different from one another. The Bear and the Nightingale is a fine debut with lyrical prose and a fairy tale-like ambiance. It is a slow burn, rich in magic and stories. The Girl in the Tower, in turn, is fast paced; peppered with action sequences, horse races, bandits and political hierarchies. It has a wider array of minor characters and fewer fairy folk. It is essentially a coming of age story that lays bare the domination of men in political decision-making and the burden on women to choose either domestic happiness or spiritual bliss. The Winter of the Witch binds all worlds together – that of chyerti, men and new beliefs.
In her afterword, Arden muses that maybe the three guardians of Russia are a witch, a frost-demon, and a chaos-spirit, almost like a deliberate allusion to the Holy Trinity. Perhaps, a ‘frog faced girl’ helped men and chyerti to live in harmony and paved way for the existence of a dual faith of Christianity and paganism. As the frost-demon says, “For men will say in later years that this was the battle that made Rus’ a nation of one people. And chyerti will live on, unfaded.”
Arden’s historical fantasy will leave snowdrifts in your heart and lure you to nuzzle against ancient magic. With vivid characters, mythical creatures and political schemes, this frosty fairy tale is one that you will yearn to return to every winter.