Book Review : The Girl in the Tower

Book Review : The Girl in the TowerThe Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy, #2) by Katherine Arden
Published by Del Rey on December 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Fantasy & Magic
Pages: 363
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The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

I’ve read The Girl in the Tower twice, and each time, I’ve been so thoroughly engrossed that I read the novel in one sitting. The novels of the Winternight Trilogy are truly unlike any I have ever read. Though a series about magic as main character Vasilisa Petronova knows it disappearing from her world of medieval Rus, The Girl in the Tower—like its predecessor The Bear in the Nightingale—is still one of the most fantastical and magical novels that I’ve ever had the immense pleasure of reading. Despite the fairy-tale world, the characters are human (even when they are not actually human) and complex—hateable and lovable in good measure. The continued dedication to Vailisa’s freedom as a woman, something unheard of in her own time, is something I cherish and love, and it doesn’t hurt that she does it all from the back of her very own magical stallionSolovey.


Vasilisa, known as Vasya, not only saves herself and her family throughout the series, but also innocent maidens, the undeserving, and the fallen. She even shatters false gods, while breathing life into the dying chyerti, or magical guardians, of the Rus world—which has grown so preoccupied with its icons and religious doctrines of late that their own magic that has protected them for years is rapidly dying.


It is going to end, Vasya thought. One day. This world of wonders, where steam in a bathhouse can be a creature that speaks prophecy. One day, there will only be bells and processions. The chyerti will be fog and memory and stirrings in the summer barley.”


Vasya defeats not only the supernatural beings that threaten her loved ones and her precious freedom, such as the Umpyr or vampires, and evil sorcerers that wish to ensnare her and bind her life force, but also battles with equally detestable and deadly foes—the customs of her time period.


The Girl in the Tower begins with Vasya fleeing her home from the first novel on the back of her beloved stallion, Solovey, a gift from the Winter King, Morozko. Disguised as a boy, Vasya no longer fears the title of witch that often clings to her and threatens her very life. That is, until she is engulfed in the world of Moscow, the politics of her cousin Grand Prince Dmitrii, her brother monk, Sasha, and her sister Princess Olga. It is only a matter of time until her deception, abetted by her older brother and sister, of being a boy is discovered, and the title of witch claims her again once more.


I read fiercely to discover what would happen next and was ensnared by this tale of fallen priests, fading guardians, sorcerers, frost kings, bandits, horse races, Tartars, and more—all set amongst a breathtakingly real backdrop of medieval Moscow, and complete with descriptions of traditional dress and customs. The many layers of The Girl in the Tower are simply astounding and the possibilities for Vasya—or at least for her male disguise—seemed endless, with new and old characters entering the fray.


I was both dismayed and delighted to rediscover Konstantin, the destroyed priest from The Bear and the Nightingale in Moscow. Author Katherine Arden does an amazing job of simultaneously rendering the man despicable and pitiable. View Spoiler » and I cannot wait to read of their meeting in the next novel, as its clear by the prophecy given to him by the bannik, that his devious actions are far from over.


I was similarly pleased with Sasha’s reappearance in this novel. I thought it was somewhat odd that Vasya’s beloved older brother Sasha disappeared to become a monk in the first novel, so I was delighted when he appeared again in this novel. Arden delicately sets Sasha, who looks startlingly similar to Vasya, up as a foil for his younger sister—brilliantly highlighting the difference their genders make. Under the auspices of a monk—Sasha is able to wander the realm with a sword on his back, reaping fame as both a man of God and as the sole trusted political advisor to his cousin Grand Prince Dmitrii—and has no immediate plans to take his vows to remain in cloistered in his monastery for good.


This is in stark contrast to Vasya, who as a woman, must either have an arranged marriage or remain ensconced in a convent for the rest of her days—something that all the other characters in the book recognize will crush her spirit, but are unable to find a suitable alternative to within the constraints of her own time period. Vasya is never given the freedom of choice like her brother—who is able to opt to roam the world of his own volition and is actually respected for it—and it is a testament to her strength of will that she does not follow the path set out for her by her own time period and family, but instead, blazes her own trail.


I was surprised to find that this novel explained some of the mystery surrounding Vasya’s grandmother, Tamara, who was very much like her granddaughter. I found her depiction as a ghost-wraith-bound to Kasyan a  bit disappointing, as from the beginning of The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya’s mother swears her next child, will be special, like her own mother. So to see Tamara, rendered low by the chain of events that happened to her was startling, and made Morozko’s similar actions all the more disturbing. Despite this smidge of dismay, I was excited by the references to Tamara’s own magical mother. The very same woman who rode firebirds, like the one Vasya frees from the golden bridle of Kasyan. I wondered, could Tamara’s mother be Baba Yaga—the witch from the Russian fairytale that is casually referenced in each novel? This would also explain some of the hints the author set, with the appearance of Midnight, the notorious demon, and the lines the novel foreshadowing that Vasya should have paid more attention to these references to her great-grandmother, as it would have saved her a great deal of trouble in the future.


But out of all these simultaneous running threads of storylines throughout the novel, I’m most excited to see what becomes of the romance between Vasya and Morozko, the Frost King Death God. Though I was dismayed to learn that Morozko, who clearly loves Vasya as much as he is able to as a frozen god of death, had View Spoiler »I still really love their relationship. My ability to see the relationship in a positive light is a testament to the author’s incredible writing ability to render all of her characters complex and conflicted. This is especially true of her characterization of Morozko.


It’s been riveting from the very beginning of the series to watch the King of Winter’s concern for Vasya and for her well being to grow. And to see him time and time again show up to save Vasya from certain death—unable to let her die, despite being the very god of death—feels like a victory in more than one way. To see his tenderness with her as something he honestly cannot help is touching and his immortality being an impediment to being with her is beautifully heartbreaking.


“With that sapphire, he bound your strength to him—but the magic did what he did not intend; it made him strong but it also pulled him closer and closer to mortality, so that he was hungry for life, more than a man and less than a demon….So that he loved you, and did not know what to do.”


I love his magical home in the fir grove, to which Vasya runs as a safe haven. I love that Vasya does not have to compromise herself when she is with him—she refuses his dowry in the first novel, and refuses his sapphire in this one—but he still cares for her. His magical white mare –the mother of Vasya’s own Solovey—and her concern over both Vasya and Morozko’s fates is entertaining. Truly the horses are the wisest characters in these novels—something I find purely delightful.


The romance of Vasya and Morozko is so uniquely bewitching that I can only hope the two can find their own happy existence together somehow. Regardless of their outcome, the theme of the novels continually make clear is that there is no traditional future in store for Vasya. I’m very much hoping that her future will include Morozko—the two on their magical horses, watching over the fates of men and chyerti alike—but I have a feeling that there are more surprises in store the next novel—and that Vasya will ride out to meet them.



Book Review - Blogging with Dragons - The GIrl in the Tower

Posted December 1, 2018 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Favorite Books

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