The Girl in the Tower
The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingalecontinues 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.
"Arden’s lush, lyrical writing cultivates an intoxicating, visceral atmosphere, and her marvelous sense of pacing carries the novel along at a propulsive clip. A masterfully told story of folklore, history, and magic with a spellbinding heroine at the heart of it all.”
First of all, I love how this series encapsulates fantastical elements of Russian fairy tales into the time period of the middle ages surrounding Moscow and its history. From what I read about Katherine Arden, she has a keen interest in Eastern European history and grew up enjoying fairy tales. So, very geniusly put together, this sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale holds its own with the best of YA Fantasy while including some historical facts of trade routes, setting and culture.
14th century Russia, Vasya Perovna is on the run. She is disguised as a boy, off to see the world and to escape the life in which she would be nothing more but condemned a witch. It’s just her and her magic stallion Solovey now. (Can I just interject to say that I love that Solovey character!) Ahead of her lies a world to be explored, routes to be traveled, mountains to be climbed and the seas to be reached.
“Every time you take one path, you must live with the memory of the other: of a life left unchosen. Decide as seems best, one course or the other; each way will have its bitter with its sweet.”
― Katherine Arden
As they ride along and Vasya spends her first frightening night outside in the woods by the fire, she comes close to bandits burning down villages and kidnapping young children. Her brother Aleksander, aka Sasha, a monk from Moscow and Prince Dimitri are already under way to investigate the raids and their path meets up with hers. As her brother recognizes Vasya, it is more important then ever for her to keep her disguise as a boy as this is the only way for her to be accepted to accompany them and be accepted into the ranks to fight the bandits. What turns out to be a slight detour, turns into an exciting path of adventure of a different kind.
“Sasha looked at his sister. He had never thought of her as girlish, but the last trace of softness was gone. The quick brain, the strong limbs were there: fiercely, almost defiantly present, though concealed beneath her encumbering dress. She was more feminine than she had ever been, and less. Witch. The word drifted across his mind. We call such women so, because we have no other name.”
― Katherine Arden
The journey puts Vasya into circumstantial situations that makes this read quite captivating and her character is equally strong to match the challenges. Contrary to the first book in the trilogy, there is a lot more action and the plot navigates interestingly through, presenting the reader not a boring moment to spare.
As Vasya reunites with some of her family towards the end of the book and shares news of her father, she has been through turmoil of close calls, scary fights, tender moments of love and as a whole grown into an amazingly strong woman without loosing her empathy or gloating a heroine.
I can’t give away much more as it would spoil the experience of reading the book. Unlike some other YA fantasy I have read, this book holds it’s plot without leaving me breathless as if I had just run a marathon. Its steady approach goes neither overboard or under par. I really liked that about the book and thought it was quite a bit better than the first.
As always, I love it when an author can conclude his/her thoughts in an afterword. In this case, there was an explanation to the Russian way of name giving, as these can change or are interchanged in respect to male/female or titles. Very interesting, yet still a bit confusing. I also loved Katherine Arden's interest in the middle ages of Russia. Definitely very unique and perhaps new to the rest of the world serving as a door opener for future novels to be written.
To conclude, for me this was a big step up for book two and I am now excited to read the last one in the Winternight Trilogy.