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Book Review: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Favorite Quotes: “And yet, I will think of the future, to remind me that the present is not forever…what is the present without the future?” (Vasya)

and

“It is not for men and women to presume what the Lord wishes. That way lives evil, when men put themselves too high, saying, I know what God wants, for it is also what I want.” (Sergei)

Winter of the witchFirst off: this will not be a traditional book review. Partly because it’s difficult to review the third book in a series without spoiling the previous two. To that point, The Winter of the Witch is the story of Vasya’s further adventures in medieval Russia. She interacts more with her brother Sasha in this novel, but less with her sister and niece. The way the story played out helped me to understand that the second book, The Girl in the Tower, was the story of Vasya’s adolescence, and her mistakes and faults there were the function of learning how to be in the world. In this third part, we get to see her learn from her mistakes, find her unique strengths, feel grown-up emotions in many forms. I also felt that the story struck a good balance: Vasya is not a girl in distress waiting for a man to rescue her from her trials (this makes me crazy), but she is also not impossibly bad-ass (which also makes me nuts). Instead, she does some things on her own and in other experiences, learns to use the resources she has, including other people and beings, to assist her.

I was not disappointed by the ending of this series, and am I so glad I started it despite my initial misgivings.

But what I really want to write about is how some books resonate within a life. I haven’t given her a name yet, but I have invented a Greek goddess of reading. Her role in the Pantheon is to bring to pass the matching of stories to souls. Not always, not all moments in a life and not all books. But sometimes she bequeaths the perfect book at the perfect time, and for me, The Winter of the Witch at this exact moment in my life—the winter before I turned 47, when my mom died, when I have begun to feel like I am on the other side of some intense struggles and so in a time of figuring out what I learned from them—was one of those moments of bookish auspicious grace.

This is because of the time of life I find myself in. My main topics of thought revolve around the fact that I am turning 47 next month. Somehow, 47 seems much older than 46. So much closer to 50. If I am lucky, I have two decades of life left, maybe two and a bit, and they will be full of bodily failings. My body will do whatever it does, but joints and wrinkles and failing eyesight feels out of my control. If you had asked me when I was 20 what my life would look like when I was almost 47, I would have described successes. I wanted to be a mother, and I am blessed beyond measure that I got to do so. But I also thought I would achieve other things, and honestly, I didn’t. My 20-year-old self might be disappointed by me (although I think she’d be delighted, if not a bit surprised, at how much I love running and hiking). And my relationship with my religious faith is, right now, deeply conflicted. I think it always has been, but while I was so deep in raising my family I didn’t stop to really question, to let the conflicts rise to the surface, and that itself has done damage.

In some ways I am more at peace with myself than I could’ve imagined at 20. In other ways I am anxious and troubled and saddened by the ways I failed and the mistakes I made.

Really, my midlife-crisis-style questionings have absolutely nothing to do with a young woman in a medieval Russian fairytale retelling. But there was something that happened as I read the book; a deep sense of peace and of being heard, somehow, settled over me.

It has to do with those two quotes. Vasya is right: a big part of the present is influenced by the future. I’ve always been a person who thinks about the future. Just one example, I remember telling my grandma Florence, who I loved dearly as a little girl, that I couldn’t wait to be a grandma just like her. She looked at me quizzically and said “but you’re still a little girl, you should enjoy being little.” I do try to live in the moment, but I am also prone to imagine the future. For so long, the future I looked forward to was full of things I would do or experience, but now it feels like what is left is witnessing what happens to other people.

I will not always be almost-47. Knowing the future is coming makes me love right now, even with its complexities, because I know everything will change, and because I also know that I cannot imagine what will happen in the future. Even while my decisions in the now shape the future. So I am deep in pondering: what, given how my current life really is, should I do with the time I have left? How can I learn, like Vasya, from the mistakes I made and then use that knowledge to shape the future in different ways?

But it’s also deeply entwined with religion. Or faith. Or belief in something other than this world. I’m feeling so prickly about old men telling me what God thinks. Especially since so often it bumps hard against what I think God thinks. Or what God wants me to do with my life. Or what I want to do with my life. There are many religious characters in The Winter of the Witch, and they respond in different ways to the turbulence of their time; the ones I respond to best are the ones who are flexible in their thinking. What is good? What is evil? What is the best way for me to act? How can I be a good person? There are plenty of old men who are willing to tell me what they think, and when I’ve followed their ideas blindly I have found myself in places I didn’t want to be. Not necessarily evil, but uncomfortable. Not the right fit for me. In fact, I feel like I have been pretending for far too long—my analogy of the bloody dress—and I just don’t want to anymore. I want to believe in a God who loves me not because I am good but because I am myself. I can’t pretend to know what God wants for anyone, even, sometimes, for myself, and I no longer want to justify anything by thinking “it’s what God wants.”  Fitting that into the structures of my life is one of my main focuses, and I will freely admit I have no idea how to do it.

Winter of the Witch didn’t really give me any answers to the questions I have. It entertained me; I loved the world building, the concept of Midnight, the interaction of ancestors’ choices with ours, Vasya’s growth, the resolution. The horses and the history mingled with fairy tale. The way the plot is led by questions. I will forever think of Ded Grib when I eat mushrooms. Most importantly, though, it felt like an answering voice, a story entirely like my own that still told me that my own questions and future are also important.

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