Road to Midnight || The Winter of the Witch Review

Initial Thoughts: 

Finishing this book was like letting out the biggest sigh of awe and wonder. This book was a culmination of stories from the beginning of the trilogy, with a resolution that quite honestly made me tear up with satisfaction. Also, say what you will about the secondary romance element, but in a story with the breadth and depth of this trilogy? Super well done.

Warning: This is the third and final book of the Winternight Trilogy, so expect spoilers from the previous two books!

For my reviews of the previous books: The Bird and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower.


THE WINTER OF THE WITCH

by Katherine Arden
Del Rey, January 2019
Fairy tale fantasy, historical
Rated: 5 / 5 cookies
ARC provided by Katherine Arden (thank you thank you thank you!)

The Winternight Trilogy introduced an unforgettable heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, a girl determined to forge her own path in a world that would rather lock her away. Her gifts and her courage have drawn the attention of Morozko, the winter-king, but it is too soon to know if this connection will prove a blessing or a curse.

Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

This is probably the ONE book I’m reviewing this year that hasn’t come out yet, and again, many thanks to the lovely author for giving me an advanced copy so I could finish Vasya’s journey. And holy firebird, what a journey it’s become!

As with the previous book, this one continues straight after the events of The Girl in the Tower. Vasya has unveiled the secrets of Kaschei and released the firebird from its golden cage. This brings about the unintended result of a firestorm in Moscow, and it takes much of the winter-king’s powers–and Vasya’s–to put things aright. With the end of the snows and Morozko’s waning strength, Vasya fends for herself in the assault against her–magical and non-magical.

I’m not gonna lie, the end of The Girl in the Tower made me wonder if I would see a certain winter-king again, and whether it would end well between him and Vasya. I came off of a really good slow-burn new adult novel (see: A Court of Mist and Fury) and after the atmosphere of The Winter of the Witch‘s predecessors, I knew I was hunkering down for the culmination of what I thought was a slow-burn romance. And oooohhh boy, it pays off. That fight. That bathhouse. That scene. That smell of frost and pine. It couldn’t get any more steamy, am I right?! Swoon.

But I want to backtrack first to the harrowing beginning. Unlike the slow starts of the first two books, Winter of the Witch took Vasya out of the oven and threw her quite literally into the fire. Because of how Arden’s written the books–and how atmospheric her stories have been–the scene in the beginning was difficult to get through and caused me to have a slight meltdown where Solovey was concerned. I just…it was bleak OMG and then Konstantin heightens the witch-hunt with his craziness and anti-demon psychobabble (also, WHY hasn’t this guy died yet like, seriously, if Kaschei the Immortal managed to perish in the end of book 2, how has this guy managed to make it to book 3?!).

To credit Vasya and those who seek to keep her alive, though, she manages to survive to fight another day, all the while refusing the help of both the winter-king and his brother, Medved (because of course she would be stubborn at a time where she’s on the verge of being burned alive). Fear not, because she takes the road to Midnight’s lair, and, well, she discovers things about her heritage that made me absolutely squee.

So let’s talk about this heritage for a bit. Arden throws more homage to Russian folklore here. The firebird takes a bigger role in this book (which explains the beautiful cover) as do various fairy tale creatures straight from Russian legend. There are the usual household spirits, but also the spirits found within the demon world. There’s also the appearance of one of my favorite Russian fairy tale figures ever: Baba Yaga. I mean, I waited this long for an appearance, and Arden’s tie-in with her story (and how she’s related to Vasilisa Petrovna squeeee) was just mind-blowingly good. Like many retellings of Baba Yaga, though, this particular witch is cantankerous, a little bit mad, and absolutely fantastic. She lives in a hut at the edge of Midnight, and throughout the story little homages of the actual Baba Yaga tales are added in (we also find out that Midnight is one of Baba Yaga’s three horsemen–or, in this case, horsewomen).

Anyway, there are a lot of characters that are highlighted in this book, and mostly because the story is split into three parts: Vasya’s escape and survival through Midnight, the freeing of Morozko and fight against Konstantin and Medved’s legion of the dead (hands down my favorite arc), and the penultimate battle of the Mongolian army against the supernatural and human denizens of Russia. Medved–who, from the first two books, is pretty much thrown in as a catalystic chaos-spirit–gets a wonderful showing in this book. We get some really good Medved scenes in Winter of the Witch, and to be honest, while I absolutely hated Konstantin from the very beginning of the trilogy, I thought his constant downward spiral was well written, and ironically the pair-up of Konstantin and the One-Eyed Bear humanizes Medved. Which, if you look at it, kind of mirrors how Vasya’s relationship with the winter-king humanizes Morozko…but who’s drawing parallels?! (ME, YES, NO SHAME.)

I loved this book so much. It had everything I loved about Russian folklore and thensome. It had twists and turns I somewhat expected, and others that I didn’t but ended up absolutely delighting in. It had a main character who–while I did question her decisions from time to time–managed to come to her own power, independent of the stronger powers of others. It had a romance that made me swoon because it was worth its slow-burn, and yet it wasn’t the focus of the book; however, when the witch and the winter-king worked together, it was magic in all manner of speaking.

5 out of 5 cookies! Now…where’s my hot cocoa? I could do with reading this again.


Have you read this series yet? What did you think?

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Snow White Has Six Guns || Review

Initial Thoughts:

The story of Snow White is probably one of my least favorite fairy tales (and that’s not saying much, considering I love fairy tales in general), but I can definitely appreciate a retelling when it’s well done. And this novella was very well done. Valente is a new author for me this year, but gawds, do I want to read more of her stuff? YES PLEASE.


SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE

by Catherynne M. Valente
Saga Press, November 2015
Western, fairy tale retelling, novella
Rated: 4.5 / 5 cookies

Forget the dark, enchanted forest. Picture instead a masterfully evoked Old West where you are more likely to find coyotes as the seven dwarves. Insert into this scene a plain-spoken, appealing narrator who relates the history of our heroine’s parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. Although her mother’s life ended as hers began, so begins a remarkable tale: equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, this is an utterly enchanting story…at once familiar and entirely new.

Skin as white as snow

This story was actually my second of Valente’s novellas, the first being Speak Easy, which was also a fairy tale retelling. In the case of Speak Easy, the scene was the Roaring Twenties and the subject was a bit more familiar to me because I do love me some Jazz Age stories from time to time. I enjoyed that book, but for some reason, Six-Gun Snow White was my personal favorite of the two.

But let me start by prefacing this review with the fact that of the many fairy tales out there in the world, and the many times I gush about fairy tales and their respective retellings, the story of Snow White is definitely one of my least favorites. I couldn’t really explain to you why, but it probably stems from the fact that I still resent the progression of the tale itself. I mean, honestly, how much better was Snow’s situation after escaping from her super-vain stepmother? Not much unless your dream job is to be the housekeeper for seven grown-ass men. Come on, Snow, let’s not settle there.

Also, the whole perspective on beauty is just…meh. Most fairy tales tend to put a blanket “beautiful” statement about their heroines/damsels, so it’s not hard to imagine many of them being of different color. Snow White, on the other hand, breaks that norm by stating EXACTLY what makes Snow White the most beautiful woman of all. Sigh.

Hem. I mean…there are definitely many flaws, plot holes, and anti-feminist subtexts in a number of fairy tales, so Snow White is definitely not the worst (and most certainly not the most disturbing…though I suppose the queen practically asking the hunter to carve Snow White’s heart out is pretty macabre), it’s not a tale I care for.

Which is why I absolutely adored Valente’s retelling.

Snow White has a gun and she knows how to use it.

Valente pretty much took the tale of Snow White and ran with it. She put the setting in the mid-west. Snow White’s name wasn’t actually Snow White; she was named this way as a mockery, for the skin color that she would never have. She was the child of what is essentially a rape (yeah, this book is for adults, if you don’t already know), where her white father took possession of Gun That Sings, a Crow-woman he has lusted after since the moment he’d set eyes on her. In the end, things don’t end well for Gun That Sings, and Snow is left as a child of two cultures, unwelcome in both.

The beginning of the story kind of reminded me of the tale of “Donkeyskin,” which is one of my favorite tales (yeah, my head is weird). There were a lot of elements Valente used from “Donkeyskin,” including the three dresses and the fact that at some point even the father looked at Snow White and was reminded of the woman he’d tried to woo.

For the most part, the novella was definitely more “Snow White” than “Donkeyskin,” and elements of the original fairy tale pop up every so often. There’s a disturbingly magical mirror, there’s a stepmother whose goal is mostly ambiguous, there’s a hunter that was paid to go after Snow, and there’s the “dwarves” (who I’ll get to in a bit).

That said, this is a Western, and Snow White is pretty much a half-Crow, half-white girl who learned how to shoot a gun by the time she was six. She lived in a mansion, tucked away in her own little saloon, with arcade games and precious stones delivered straight from her surprisingly doting father. Eventually Snow White runs away (similar to the original), and she wanders for a while until she runs into a town that houses seven oddball characters.

And this is where Valente definitely twisted the elements around. Snow White doesn’t find men or miners. Snow White doesn’t become some housekeeper to a bevy of unwashed dudes. Snow White actually finds herself in a town filled with outcast women who kick ass. These are the women of the Wild West, women who had to survive out there without the boys in tow. Valente gave each woman a voice and a backstory, and that made it even more awesome.

Also, can I just say how much I love the illustrations that accompany this book?

Again, this is my second Valente, and I don’t know how her writing style is for her children’s books (I have The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…), but what I read in Speak Easy and Six-Gun Show White was that she really emulated the style and dialogue of the time period. The 1920s came alive for me in Speak Easy, and I can practically visualize the nitty gritty Wild West in Six-Gun Snow White. I loved how she incorporated many elements that made the West what it was during the Gold Rush and mining eras, and to me, it made absolute sense that Snow White’s story would be retold at this particular time and place.

So all in all, I enjoyed the novella. It was a fun, fast-paced read. It had characters that were super-interesting. It had a pleasantly candid perspective, and its heroine’s major character trait is not her outward beauty, but her spunky, independent attitude towards the life she’d been given.

Also, that twist in the end was something I never saw coming.

4.5 out of 5 cookies! I cannot wait to actually read more of Valente’s stuff.


Have you read this book or anything by the author? What did you think?

Season 4: Which Retelling Next?

We’re looking for your input! Again, it’s about time that we’re finishing up a season and gearing for the next, so while Meg and I are putting together our Donkeyskin retellings, we’d love it if you go and vote for our next podcast retelling. Please and thank you and I will hopefully be back next post with a review or two!

Fableulous Retellings Podcast

Before we get into the nitty gritty of polling, we just wanted to announce the winning fairy tale to be retold in the last poll: Donkeyskin! Yep, with your help, we now know what to talk about for our third season.

That being said, we are also sending out some invites! Want to chat with us about Donkeyskin retellings? Let us know! This fairy tale is a personal favorite of mine, but that’s probably because deep down I have a sick and twisty soul with a penchant around sick and twisty tales. In any case, there’s going to be lots of fun discussing the issues to be had in this fairy tale. There’s still a couple weeks left before Season 2 comes to a close, so do let us know if you’re willing to make a guest appearance on our fableulous podcast!

Alright, now that we’ve finally locked down…

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Fables by Bill Willingham: A Series Overview

It’s difficult saying goodbye to a series you’ve been off and on reading for years at a time. It’s going on a journey with a cast of characters you’ve loved and then being told you’ve got to go back to work in the real world, thankyouverymuch (which, to be honest, is my general outlook in life, hah!). Fables was pretty much that journey, and it was sad to see the series actually, truly “end.”

To preface: this isn’t a typical review. I’ve finished 150 issues in 22 volumes, spanning thousands of dialogue and illustrations, panels and pages, and I’m finding it impossible to judge a series by its final volume. Farewell does a good job tying some loose ends, but leaves many things to the imagination, and encompassed several problematic elements that deterred it from being the penultimate volume of Fables volumes. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

There’s an actual key within the foldout that tells you who each Fable is on this cover. It’s magnificent in scope.

Those who haven’t read Fables and are interested in delving into fractured fairy tales and modern retellings should really give this Willingham series a try. I must have pushed this series to a number of my reader friends (and my not-so-reader sister and best friend) because at the time I was:

  • A) in a Vertigo Comics reading spree (owing to my love of Sandman by Neil Gaiman) and
  • B) always on the lookout for fairy tale comics.

Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales piqued my interest in artwork, but it was Willingham’s Fables that had the staying power when it came to its characters and story.

The Fables series follows the story of the Fable community, a group of fairy tale, folktale, legendary, and mythological characters and their struggles to live in the Mundy (mundane, magic-less) world. After their defeat against the infamous Adversary, most of the Fable worlds have been subsumed into the Adversary’s empire, and many are forced to retreat to the mundane world of Manhattan and its surrounding areas. The first volume title, Legends in Exile–as well as the first cover, an illustration of Fables characters running and cramming themselves into Manhattan’s subway train–pretty much gives an accurate portrayal of how they’ve been living for hundreds of years.

In Legends in Exile, we encounter the prominent figures of Fabletown, and interestingly enough, the story begins with Snow White and Rose Red. I point this out because Willingham returns to the rivalry between the two sisters one final time in Farewell, and it becomes a rivalry of epic proportions. To be honest, this wasn’t the bit that endeared me to the series.

It was this particular panel that did.

I adore Bigby Wolf, and the fact that much of the first half of the series pits Bigby as a prominent character–and important member of Fabletown–is most definitely why I kept reading. Ever since my entry into urban fantasy and the were-creatures that litter the genre’s pages, I’ve always kept a fondness for werewolves, and Bigby is not only THE Big Bad Wolf of stories, but he’s a REFORMED Big Bad Wolf. By this point in the Fables series, he’d even been appointed as the Fables’ town sheriff, a character you would not have typically visualized as someone who would uphold the law.

But Bigby does in his own way, and it is easy to see later on why.

Um. I totally ship it.

The first volume did its job introducing a colorful cast, but it was Vol. 2, Animal Farm, and Vol. 3, Storybook Love, that cemented my love for the series. By the end of Vol. 11, War and Pieces, I thought this series was the bees’ knees. And it continued to be, though to be honest, once the Adversary Arc came to a resolution, nothing came quite close to the magic that the first 11 volumes held in their pages.

The series comprises of a few major storylines:

The Adversary (Vols. 1-11) – Wherein the Fables community try to find a life within the Mundy world, at the same time that many of them attempt to retake their Homeworlds from their enemies. Pretty epic stuff, especially considering who the Adversary is revealed to be, and how each of the Fables characters played a part in taking the evil kneevil down.

Mister Dark (Vols. 12-17) – After the fall of the Adversary, a new villain comes into town in the hopes of wreaking destruction to a newly-recovering Fable community. This arc was difficult to get through because the antagonists were arbitrary and highly annoying, but the arc also gave us Ghost, the North Wind, and Frau Totenkinder, and they are worth the waste of space that is Mister Dark.

The Werewolf Cubs (Vol. 18) – A prophecy comes to light upon the birth of Bigby’s seven children, and each are tied to their fates. This includes the spinoff volume Werewolves of the Heartland, which I considered as part of Vol. 18, to be honest.

Snow White and Rose Red (Vols. 19-22) – The finale pits us back to the rivalry between the two sisters and a curse revealed that explains it all. Or, well, tries to explain it all. It failed in my book, but Vol. 19, Snow White was well worth the read because it pretty much delves into Snow’s past and shines a light to how truly badass she is (although, if I’m going to be honest, I totally skipped everything about the damn flying monkey). Vol. 20, Camelot, follows in Snow’s wake by highlighting her sister Rose Red, and it is still one of my favorite covers in the series, even though Rose Red is quite possibly my least favorite lead.

I mean…taking on a fantastic swordsman one-handed? How is that NOT badass?!

But as far as it ended? I’m of two minds on that. In some ways, I appreciated Willingham trying to tie in loose ends in Farewell. It was a better volume than what came before, but it was also a bit of an anticlimactic disappointment. It also begged the question of “Who can truly come back to life?” Early on, it was established that the more famous Fables are able to return from death because hell, they are legendary in the mundy world. But then by the end of the series, even the popular fables don’t come back, and yet…some of the not-so-famous do. It bothered me to no end, almost as much as Rose Red’s lack of character development did.

In fact, if it weren’t for this magnificent four-panel foldout, I wouldn’t have rated Farewell as high as I did.

That all said, I’d still highly recommend this series. Heck, I’d highly recommend its spinoffs, too, especially Fairest and Telltale Games’ A Wolf Among Us (which also has a graphic novelization out). I wouldn’t so far as recommend the Jack of Fables spinoff, mostly because I effing HATED Jack and his Literal friends (and gods, AVOID Vol. 13: The Great Fables Crossover if you can, it really doesn’t add shmat to the story), but hey, who knows, it is probably enjoyable to others.

Alright, there. I’m done tooting the Fables horn.

Have you read the series? What did you think?