Folktales speak to us of ancient people, places and things. Dark caverns, spooky forests, mysterious voices that carry on the wind, power over life and death, and so much more. All these things confounded our ancestors, so they created stories to explain the “why” of things like snow, waxing and waning moons, flight of birds, and luck. Those long ago ancestors also believed that there were guardians, or house gods, or chyerti who protected the family from evil…as long as they were fed and cared for and believed in. And that’s where Katherine Arden’s glorious Winternight Trilogy begins.
In Book 1, The Bear and the Nightingale, we meet Vasilisa, the youngest daughter of Pyotr of Lesnaya Zemlya. Vasya, as her family calls her, can see the chyerti who are beginning to fade as the new Christian religion takes hold in Russia. Warned to always care for the chyerti, who keep evil away from the family and village, Vasya continues to practice the “old ways” until her father brings a new stepmother home from Moscow. Anna is a devout Christian who sees evil at every turn, but especially in Vasya, making it hard for Vasya to honor the chyerti. As the chyerti are neglected, an old evil awakens in the form of a monstrous Bear and terrible things begin to happen in the village. Vasya invokes Morozko, the Winter King, to help save her family and village from the Bear and his horrible minions, but also to save herself from a vengeful priest who seeks to burn her as a witch.
Girl in the Tower picks up where Bear & the Nightingale leaves off – with Lesnaya Zemlya safe, and Vasya setting off on her own with the magnificent horse Solvey, gifted to her by the Winter King. Her only wish is to see as much of the world as possible, but she quickly comes to realize just how difficult that will be without assistance. She seeks out the Winter King, who reluctantly helps her on her way, disguised as a boy. Along the way, Vasya stumbles upon her older brother, Sasha, and their cousin Dmitri, the Grand Prince of Moscow and joins forces with them to defeat a greater evil, Kaschei the Deathless. Their quest takes them back to Moscow, where Vasya is reunited with her older sister Olga, the Princess of Serpukhov. Olga lives in Moscow with her husband and children, one of whom has inherited the ability to see the chyerti. Vasya’s adventures in Moscow end in a thrilling showdown with Kaschei, and a very satisfying ending which foreshadows the final entry in the series.
Throughout both novels, Vasya struggles with her intense desire to be free. She doesn’t want to marry, nor does she wish to enter the convent which are the only two options for young women of her time. She relishes the danger and thrill of her relationship with Morozko, the Winter King, and Arden has done a masterful job of creating tension and attraction between the two. Arden has created interesting characters in Bear & the Nightingale, and has spent considerable time fleshing them out in Girl in the Tower. Vasya, Sasha, Dmitri, Olga, and now Marya create a world that will pull you in and envelop you with their spirit. While the story is captivating on it’s own, Arden’s writing is icing on the cake. Lyrical, lush, and full of magic and mystery, it will keep you reading well into the night. Truthfully, I haven’t loved a series as much since I first read Harry Potter. Highly recommended.