The Girl in the Tower: Tangled webs of deception in medieval Russia

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The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden fantasy book reviewsThe Girl in the Tower by Katherine ArdenThe Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower (2017), a medieval Russian fantasy, continues the story of Vasilisa (Vasya), a young woman whose story began in Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightingale, one of my favorite fantasies from early 2017. That makes it a hard act to follow, but there’s no sophomore slump here. The Girl in the Tower is an even stronger novel, more sure-footed and compelling in its telling, and with more complex and nuanced characterization.

At the beginning of The Girl in the Tower, which picks up right where The Bear and the Nightingale ends, Vasya was leaving her childhood village of Lesnaya Zemlya in northern Rus’ to go to Moscow, where her sister Olga lives. Vasya’s life in Lesnaya Zemlya was threatened by villagers who view her as a witch. In a sense it’s true: Vasya has the rare ability to see and talk to the nature spirits and characters of Russian folklore, including the frost-demon Morozko, the Russian death-god. Morozko helps Vasya on her way as she travels toward Moscow alone, against all the norms for women and against Morozko’s advice, with only her stallion Solovey (the “Nightingale”) for company and protection.

The journey to Moscow is even more dangerous than usual. A mysterious group of bandits is making its way across the countryside, burning entire villages, slaughtering most of the villagers and kidnapping young girls for slavery. Vasya’s cousin Dmitrii Ivanovic, the current Grand Prince of Moscow, is out hunting for the bandits with the help of Vasya’s brother Sasha, a warrior-like priest. They’re unexpectedly joined by a red-haired lord called Kasyan Lutovich, who unexpectedly appears with his men to help with the search, explaining that his lands (called Bashnya Kostei, the “Tower of Bones”) have also been raided by these bandits.

Winternight Trilogy by Katherine ArdenVasya’s refusal to comply with the customs and rules of 14th century Russia regarding the proper role and behavior of women ― in particular, highborn women ― gets Vasya into a lot of trouble, both on the way to Moscow and once she arrives. While Vasya is traveling alone through Russia, she dresses and acts as a young man for safety, hiding her long hair under a cap or hood. Once she runs into her cousin Dmitrii, she’s locked into that dangerous pretense. Dmitrii is charmed with the courageous young man that he thinks Vasya is, but Vasya ― not to mention Sasha, Olga and Olga’s family ― risk losing everything for carrying on with this deception. Meanwhile, there are also bandits to fight and Mongol conquerors to try to avoid paying heavy tribute to, and Vasya finds herself in the midst of that conflict.

Vasya is a spirited, fiercely independent young woman with no desire whatsoever to spend her life cooped up in a fine house with towers, as her sister Olga and young niece Marya do, or become a cloistered nun, which are the only options typically available to a highborn woman. It hurt my heart to see Vasya, in disguise as a boy, enjoying the freedoms men took for granted, knowing the terrible consequences discovery of her deception are likely to bring down upon her head. Olga, despite the restrictions on her life, is an intelligent woman who’s found a role in Moscow society that she’s reluctant to risk, not to mention her family’s status. Sasha, their brother, is another character who turns out to be more complex than he initially appears. The deeply conflicted priest Konstantin also reappears in The Girl in the Tower, but there’s far less of the “evils of Christianity” subtext that made The Bear and the Nightingale sometimes uncomfortable reading.

Katherine Arden weaves a magical tapestry of medieval Russia, but she doesn’t shy away from the harsh facts of life in those times. There’s a stark beauty to the land, its people and its folklore spirits, but the constraints on women are comparable to those on women in some of the stringent, restrictive cultures that still exist in our world today. Without dwelling overmuch on the point, Arden also makes you aware of the basic sanitary conditions and other aspects of day-to-day life in that age. Privileged princesses have rotten teeth; childbirth carries with it deadly dangers to mother and child.

The Girl in the Tower is entrancing: gorgeous and bleak and wonderful and terrifying, all at the same time. Arden immerses the reader in this vividly imagined world filled with both beauty and brutality. The WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY will conclude in The Winter of the Witch, due for publication in August 2018. I’ll be reading it as soon as I can possibly lay my hands on it!

Published December 5, 2017. A remarkable young woman blazes her own trail, from the backwoods of Russia to the court of Moscow, in the exhilarating sequel to Katherine Arden’s bestselling debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. Katherine Arden’s enchanting first novel introduced readers to an irresistible heroine. Vasilisa has grown up at the edge of a Russian wilderness, where snowdrifts reach the eaves of her family’s wooden house and there is truth in the fairy tales told around the fire. Vasilisa’s gift for seeing what others do not won her the attention of Morozko—Frost, the winter demon from the stories—and together they saved her people from destruction. But Frost’s aid comes at a cost, and her people have condemned her as a witch. Now Vasilisa faces an impossible choice. Driven from her home by frightened villagers, the only options left for her are marriage or the convent. She cannot bring herself to accept either fate and instead chooses adventure, dressing herself as a boy and setting off astride her magnificent stallion Solovey. But after Vasilisa prevails in a skirmish with bandits, everything changes. The Grand Prince of Moscow anoints her a hero for her exploits, and she is reunited with her beloved sister and brother, who are now part of the Grand Prince’s inner circle. She dares not reveal to the court that she is a girl, for if her deception were discovered it would have terrible consequences for herself and her family. Before she can untangle herself from Moscow’s intrigues—and as Frost provides counsel that may or may not be trustworthy—she will also confront an even graver threat lying in wait for all of Moscow itself.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. Gotta get my mitts on this ASAP. :D Thanks, Tadiana!

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