Why You Need to Read: “The Winter of the Witch”

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale Retelling, Folklore, Magic Realism

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel and the series. You have been warned.

            “You are a fool, man of God,” he said. You never understood.”

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

            “That I do keep faith, in my own fashion,” said the Bear.

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

            The Winter of the Witchis the third and final book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy.What started with The Bear and the Nightingale—and yes, readers need to read that book and the second book, The Girl in the Tower,in order to know what is going on in the third book—ends with this beautiful end to a beautiful trilogy. This historical fiction fantasy starts where the second book ended, with Moscow recovering from both a fire and the actions of a wicked magician. Once again, Vasilisa Petrovna’s actions have caught up with her, and she barely escapes with her life. Then, she must come up with a plan to unite ALL of Russia—humans and chyerti—to fight against the invading Tatars, and to find balance between two belief systems—Christianity and Paganism.

            The characters are those we were introduced to from the previous books: Vasya, Sasha (her brother), Olga (her sister), Marya (her niece), Solovey (her stallion), Dmitrii Ivanovich (the Grand Prince), Morozko (the frost-demon), Medved (the chaos-spirit), Konstantin Nikonovich (the charlatan priest), and Varvara (the Head servant). New characters are introduced and mentioned as well. Together, all of the characters are active in Arden’s story from the roles they play to the answers they provide to the readers’—and characters’—concerns and questions. Each character is well developed and motivated to accomplish their goals. The conviction in the protagonist, the antagonist(s), and the other characters remind the reader(s) that more scenarios are happening than the characters and we are aware of.

            The plot, as I mentioned earlier, is both a continuation of the events in the previous book, and a continuation of Vasya’s growth into an adult. Christianity is now the dominant religion in Russia with the amount of people who keep the older traditions decreasing, the Tatars continue their campaign to take over Russia, ancient feuds continue to play on, and Vasya is a step closer to coming into her own and accepting her destiny. These subplots are part of the main plot—Russia is changing, but not all things fade away with those changes—and they cannot wait to be dealt with. Each change, along with its dilemma, is addressed again and again until the story’s end. It should be mentioned that each conflict does not get resolved and that is due to the reality found within the story. Conflict—from a minor issue to total chaos—never goes away. The three conflicts found within the plot are resolved, so that story ends, but the lives of the characters leaves for an ambiguous continuation and hope for both the surviving characters, and for the reader(s). 

            The narrative switches between the points-of-view of several characters: Vasya, Sasha, Olga, Konstantin Nikonovich, the Bear, Varvara, etc. Just like in other stories with multiple POVs, readers learn everything that is happening everywhere concurrently. The aftermath of Vasya’s actions affect her throughout the story; Sasha and Olga come to terms with their family’s history, gifts, and future; Konstantin Nikonovich achieves his goals with a bittersweet feeling to his conscience; and, the Bear, the Winter King, and Varvara have their roles to play in the war. Then, there is the other war that’s coming for all denizens of Russia. If it’s not one problem, then it is another problem. Remember, the first war for power happened in The Girl in the Tower,which was a short time ago within the narrative. Arden presents the conflicts and then shows how all of her characters deal with them within the story. Since the narrative is given from multiple viewpoints without the other characters knowing what is happening to other characters, readers know that each narrative is reliable and realistic. The resolution does not give the characters enough knowledge of what happened to the other characters as well, and that provides a believable ending. 

            The style of writing the author uses in this book is the same as it was in the previous books in the series. Magic realism is a genre of writing that is often used alongside the historical fiction genre. The difference is that folklore drives the narrative of a magic realism story. Arden’s style follows this method of writing. The aspect that makes Arden’s trilogy standout is the knowledge of the lore the denizens in the story have, because the lore remains as the world changes. Devout Christians are able to see the chyerti, and there are people who practice both “faiths.” One of the best things about the author’s trilogy is the way she reminds readers that old magic and ancient tales will always remain with the people (hence, the term “folklore”). Everyone knows them, some are aware of them, and few have the ability to use the deeper magic. Folklore is part of a culture, and Arden incorporated the importance of a country unifying, not just for its survival, but also for its way of life through their culture. The author did a beautiful job expressing this within her writing. 

            The appeal surrounding this novel is interesting. I’ve started reading the Winternight Trilogy from the release of The Bear and the Nightingalein 2017 and I knew Katherine Arden was one of my new favorite authors. I received an ARC of The Winter of the Witch, and while I was reading and gushing through it, I found that other readers picked up the first book out of curiosity and enjoyed it, too! If The Bear and the Nightingalewas the first book that introduced us to Katherine Arden, then The Winter of the Witchis the book that cements her as one of the best speculative fiction authors in this era of publication. Katherine Arden takes folklore and reshapes it into a new story to be read and enjoyed the same way Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor and Naomi Novik have done within their books. The Winternight Trilogyproves that the speculative fiction canon has room for authors who write across multiple elements within the genre like Katherine Arden.  

            I am proud to say that I’ve read Katherine Arden’s books since the publication of her first novel, and I’ve enjoyed them all! Now, while this review is about the last book in the trilogy, I still have to mention all of the books in the trilogy. There are many trilogies in the speculative fiction genre; and, when it comes to the trilogies I’ve read from that genre, the Winternight Trilogyleaves me with the same level of satisfaction as His Dark Materials(by Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (by N.K. Jemisin) trilogies. Anyone who knows about how I feel about those trilogies, know that’s a big deal! Reading Vasya’s journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood was an absolute joy and I’m glad Katherine Arden shared her story with us. I recommend this novel, and the series, to all readers of the speculative fiction genre. None of you will be disappointed.

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!


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Why You Need to Read: “The Fifth Season”

The Broken Earth: Book One: The Fifth Season

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 4, 2015

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2016

 

This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie because the planet is just fine.

But this is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

For the last time. (Prologue).

 

N.K. Jemisin is one of science fiction’s biggest authors whose popularity continues to grow. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is a MUST READ for ALL readers regardless of its genre. Jemisin, like other sci-fi authors, incorporates social issues of both the past and the present with scientific theories and scientific facts that make her work more comprehensible for her readers.

The Fifth Season captures the readers’ attention instantly by using the second person narration for the first chapter (after the Prologue) and is used throughout the novel. This style of narration pulls you into the structure of the society of a futuristic and a damaged planet Earth. The story begins with a terrible earthquake and the mother of a murdered toddler, Essun; then, the story jumps to a young girl, Damaya, being cast out by her family for demonstrating a dangerous ability; and finally, the story moves to another protagonist, Syenite, who is given an unusual task by her superiors to complete.

N.K. Jemisin gives readers her vision of a dystopian world with several science references that will force you to reread your old science notes from high school! In other words: geology, genetics, and environmental science are part of the larger subplot of this trilogy! Just like with other works of science fiction: the world, the environment, the culture, the inhabitants, and the jargon need to be mentioned and explained. And, since this is the first book in a trilogy, it is worth learning the terminology and the information in the Appendices (i.e. orogeny, the Stillness, stone eaters, rogga, Guardian, etc.) because they are part of the story and are used throughout the trilogy. And yes, you do learn what a “Fifth Season” is early in the novel.

The characters and the style are juxtaposed. Since there are three different characters—a child, a young adult, and a parent, all female—the style reflects the experiences and the events occurring to each of them. This means that what is happening to a 10 year-old is different from what a grieving mother is feeling. There are five other characters we meet within the novel, but we do not get their POVs; yet, we eventually find out how and why these main characters are relevant to the protagonists.

Additionally, we learn that all of the characters in this story are damaged and/or ostracized from their communities. All of the characters are connected to the events regarding the end of the current civilization. The decisions and the backgrounds of the major characters give insight into the culture, the history, and the injustices underlined in them; it allows understanding to the actions of the characters throughout the story. The readers learn more about each of them as the story progresses. This is essential because after you learn about the protagonists and the other characters, the events that occurred in the “Prologue” makes more sense and becomes relatable.

The narrative is in the form of stream of consciousness—or the unbroken flow of a character’s perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings within a narration—which is necessary as one reads more of the story. The thoughts of the mother who is grieving for her son, a young woman who begins to question her society for what it is and what they do, and a girl who must adapt to her new lifestyle within a short time in order to survive allows for world building and interpretation of how the world operates. These thoughts and feelings buildup and explode over the course of the novel. The use of flashbacks by all of the characters flows into the present narrative.

The style—based on the narrative—reflects the current protagonist, as per chapter, clearly. Yet, Jemisin’s style allows her readers to gain a sense of mystery because of the uncertainty of the other characters, which are mirrored by the protagonists (through the eyes of the readers)! Everything comes together towards the novel’s ending. By then, readers have a better idea of the protagonist and the main characters and what motivates them all and why. The cliffhanger will make you want to read the next book, The Obelisk Gate immediately; and then, afterwards, The Stone Sky.  

The Fifth Season falls under the apocalyptic subgenre, which means that the characters are preparing for survival. A few other readers have criticized the novel for having scenes that contain the characters performing certain “acts” for survival. This criticism is interesting because other apocalyptic media—The Walking Dead graphic novel series and TV show, and The Last of Us video game—includes characters that commit brutal “acts” in order to survive their situation in that society. And, like The Fifth Season, The Walking Dead and The Last of Us are critically acclaimed. Ironically, we learn of similar situations during war and genocide through witness accounts. I believe reading words still leaves a lot to one’s imagination and gives us a glimpse at a potential reality.

Another critique of the novel is the “harsh reality and treatment” of those with the ability of orogeny (power to “move” the land) also known as “roggas.” Both history and fantasy and science fiction—which reflect humanity at its best and at its worst—expresses the way “different” people are treated. Both genres illustrate various forms of slavery and xenophobia taking place: children being separated from their families, corporal punishment, breeding programs, bounty hunters, etc. Fantasy and science fiction often includes aspects of realism in order to make the story more believable. Ironically, this method of storytelling becomes a critique to how people have and continue to treat other people. Jemisin does an excellent job incorporating this reality within her science fiction saga.

I enjoyed this novel for several reasons: the complexity of the characters who are struggling with both external and internal conflicts, narrative and the plot of the story itself, the gripping and the gruesome society the author created, and the innovation of a different type of dystopia. Usually, when I’m thinking about theories on how the world could end, earthquakes and volcanoes do not come to mind. That goes to show that our way of life—not the Earth—could end and no one has an idea as to how and why.

The appeal surrounding The Fifth Season has been noteworthy and deserving. Jemisin’s novel has earned her her first Hugo Award for Best Novel; and, she has been dubbed as being “the next Octavia Butler.” As of right now, a television adaptation is in the stage of “early development.”

The Fifth Season does have a complex narrative, but the story and the characters grip the readers’ attention from the beginning. The uniqueness of the story yanks you in and refuses to slow down until the end. All sci-fi and fantasy fans should read this novel! If you want more of this story, then you can read the rest of the books in this amazing and innovative trilogy! It’s the only way you’ll find out why the Earth and its civilizations were destroyed!