Book Review: The Girl in the Tower

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.

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of the most lovely and original books of 2017. I reviewed it back in January when it was released, and have been raving about it ever since. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to get my hands on the sequel!

The Girl in the Tower picks up where the first book leaves off. Vasya has fled her home and her village, someplace she’s never left in her entire life, after the death of her father. She knows she cannot stay in a place where she’s suspected of witchcraft and distrusted by almost all. In medieval Russia, girls have really zero choices in their lives, and there are only two paths available: Marry, produce children, and run a household… or don’t marry and go instead to a convent.

But Vasya is a free spirit who sees and communicates with the chyerti, the spirits of Russian folklore who inhabit the forests, the hearth, and all aspects of the natural and man-made world. However, the people have become blinded by the edicts of the Church and no longer tend to the chyerti as they should, and now consider them to be demons and devils to be feared and cast out. Vasya chooses a different path for her life, and leaves on her beautiful horse Solovey. As she rides through freezing forests, she is occasionally accompanied by Morozko, the frost-demon who cares for her, with whom she has a mysterious bond.

Meanwhile, bandits have been raiding villages in the area near Moscow, slaughtering the villagers, burning the towns to the ground, and stealing their young girls to sell as slaves. Vasya’s brother Sasha, a fierce warrior and a monk, brings word to Grand Prince Dmitrii, and they set out to track down the bandits and stop them, while also fearing the threat of a Tatar invasion.

Paths converge, as Vasya shows up with children rescued from a burned village and seeks shelter at Sasha’s monastery, but she’s traveling in disguise as a boy, and must maintain the fiction in order to be allowed to fight and defend Moscow from the forces that threaten their world. In Moscow society, women live their lives in their towers and are not permitted on the streets or to mingle with men, so Vasya’s masquerade is a huge breach that, if revealed, will end in disaster for her, as well as for her brother and sister Olga, a princess of Moscow.

That’s the gist of the plot in The Girl in the Tower, and I won’t go into further detail, because this book really should be explored and appreciated with fresh eyes.

Once again, author Katherine Arden paints a picture of a time and place where harsh societal strictures limit women’s options, and yet at the same time, a world where magic is fading but isn’t quite gone. Reading this book, I could practically feel the freezing temperatures of the forests, and wondered at the forces keeping Vasya live when she should have frozen to death.

The traditions and daily routines are vividly described, especially the role of the bathhouses and the terem, the secluded dwelling areas for upper class women. A glossary at the back of the book provides a key tool in gaining a fuller understanding of the terms used throughout the story — reading through this section is a must, either during or after reading the book itself.

The books starts a little slowly, and it’s not until we get a bit further into Vasya’s adventures that the story truly picks up. Once it does, it’s impossible to put down.

Vasya, as in the first book, is a marvelous character. She’s brave and defiant, but with inner doubts and wounds. She knows that her society has no place for her, and all she dreams of is escape, riding off with her horse to see as much of the world as she can. Getting drawn into the intrigues and dangers of Moscow is not a part of her plan, but she can’t walk away when people she cares about are in danger, and displays her courage again and again.

As the second book in a trilogy, The Girl in the Tower doesn’t have the incredible newness of The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s definitely a middle book, continuing on with the world introduced in the first book, rather than focusing so much on world-building and the introduction of the beliefs, superstitions, and traditions of the time. The story is much more action-focused, and lacks the sense of wonder evoked in the first book as we meet the chyerti and see Vasya coming of age with her sight and her strength.

Still, The Girl in the Tower is an engaging and moving read, and does what it needs to do in terms of moving the story forward and showing the next chapter of Vasya’s life, as she leaves behind the village girl she once was and sets out to find a new path. This book is a transition from the start of Vasya’s story, laying the groundwork for what’s to come.

Now that I’ve read The Girl in the Tower, I cannot wait for the third book! Vasya is an amazing character, and her journey to become her true self is inspiring and thrilling. The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower are must-reads. Check them out!

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The details:

Title: The Girl in the Tower
Series: The Winternight Trilogy, #2
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: December 5, 2017
Length: 363 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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