Book Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The girl in the Tower

Katherine Arden returns us to Medieval Russia in the second book of her Winternight Trilogy, The Girl in the Tower. This time, however, we are whisked away from Lesnaya Zemlya, Vasya’s remote, isolated home village, and instead we immersed in medieval Moscow: a buzzing metropolitan of golden, onion-shaped domed churches, bustling market places, and deadly politics. Having loved The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book of the series, I had quite high expectations for this book, and thankfully, I was not disappointed.

The story picks up almost right where the previous book left off. Vasya has left her village, forced out for fear of being hunted as a witch, and sets out to see the world and forge her own path with her horse, Solovey. Medieval Russian society, on the other hand, has a different plan for her. As a young woman of noble birth, she should be married or dedicate her life to god behind the doors of a convent, so she must travel in disguise as a boy. Her path soon crosses with that of her older brother, Sasha, now a famous monk with the ear of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Her deception drags her into the dangers of a medieval court where she must keep her true identity hidden. Vasya’s powers and abilities to see creatures of magic don’t take the centre stage like they did in The Bear and the Nightingale, as the spirits that inhabit this world are weakened by the strength of Christianity in Moscow. This is an advance on one of the key themes of the previous novel, the rise of Christianity and the symbolic death of the old pagan ways through the weakening of the supernatural that was strongly hinted at in the previous novel.

In the last book, Vasya was very much a little girl. However, in this book she feels more grown up. She is striking out into the world, and starting to solve her own problems. This makes the book feel very much like a coming of age novel. Vasya’s reaction to learning how Morozko has been using her is particularly satisfying as it really shines through to the core of her character. She wants independence, and the ability to experience the world on her own, more than she wants safety, and the security that his patronage would bring. Keeping the necklace from Morozko would have served her better than discarding his favour, but she simply can’t do it as it goes against her nature. I also found her sister Olga’s story fascinating as it is in stark contrast to Vasya’s story. When we meet her in this book, she is a domesticated noble lady, and this serves as a reminder of the consequences of discovery for Vasya. This is how society wants to see her. For us readers, this would be a tragedy as it would deprive us of a beautifully written and fascinating heroine.

The pacing of The Girl in the Tower is one of the biggest departures of the series from the first book. The Bear and the Nightingale felt like a siege, building tension and suspense slowly but surely to an inevitable end, suffocating Vasya and her village with its menace. Whereas, in this book, the danger comes thick and fast, and from all directions. It is more of an adventure story than its predecessor, which was set almost exclusively in Lesnaya Zemlya, where as in this book we sweep through other towns and villages, the wilderness of the Russian forest in winter, and the city of Moscow itself. This makes the book feel faster, and the danger more imminent, but also slightly less threatening. At least for me, anyway. The danger of the first book felt more powerful and dark, but we had a whole book of it building in our minds. Our main antagonist in this book is much less clear, and as such their threat doesn’t permeate through the pages like in the first book.

If I had one actual criticism of this book, it would be the romance between Vasya and Morozko. This is an internal struggle for the king of winter; to feel love, he must abandon his immortality. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a strong rationale to his falling for Vasya. Maybe I missed something, and I know love isn’t always logical, but it felt a little forced. As if someone had decided Vasya needed a love interest, so they shoved one into the story for no apparent reason. It kind of explains his actions at the end of the book, but it still doesn’t quite sit right for me. Perhaps this will be further explained in the next book. I hope so.

Over all, this is a book that I can’t recommend highly enough. Definitely try The Bear and the Nightingale first though. I have absolutely loved both books in the series so far, and am hugely excited for the final book, The Winter of the Witch, which comes out in January next year.