Ok, my middle and high school self (and, let’s be real, my adult self) is squealing with excitement. Katherine Arden VERY quickly pushed out her the second book in her Winternight trilogy, a follow up to her gorgeous The Bear and the Nightingale, and I’m so delighted to share that it is just as good as the first!
The Girl in the Tower starts with Vasya on the road to Moscow, disguised as a boy traveler, trying to get to her brother Sasha, who is now a warrior monk, and her sister Ogla, a princess in the Russian court. Both she and Sasha independently discover that someone is burning villages and kidnapping young girls, and they are determined to figure out what’s going on and save their people. However, her very presence complicates things for Sasha and Olga as they navigate their precarious roles in the court of the grand prince Dmitrii, and if Vasya’s disguise were to be discovered, she (and her siblings) could be punished for indecency or even witchcraft. All the while, her relationship with the frost demon Morozko gets complicated, the mysterious newcomer Kasyan Lutovich keeps everyone on edge, and a supernatural evil is once again afoot.
I loved it! LOVED it!! I know I say that about a lot of books, but I really did. Arden is a master of world building. This was a book where I wanted to keep reading as fast as I could, but I also didn’t want the book to end. I wanted to stay in that world a while longer and was sad when I had to leave. This time there is a shift in the world, and Arden brings us more into the real world of 14th century Russia. It’s a really interesting shift away from the safety and explicitly magical contexts of the rural village and forest and highlights the widespread impact of forces beyond our control. The Moscow setting also foregrounds the clash of the old and new that was so central to The Bear and the Nightingale in a more urban context, as well as the real dangers to Vasya in an increasingly religious country as more and more people forget the old ways, causing the chyerti to fade. And to be clear, it is not anti-religious but more an exploration of what happens when beliefs, traditions, and values change at both a local and national scale.
Even when exploring these larger ideas, Arden stays focused on her characters, and the relationship building was really beautiful this time. It’s the first time we really have a chance to see Vasya in relationship with her siblings, and the relationships with Sasha and Olga are both beautiful, messy, loving, complicated, and completely distinct. No matter what magical forces are tugging at them, no matter what sort of societal or royal responsibilities they have, this is a real family with real fears, hopes, and dreams for themselves and for each other. I also really loved the way that Arden turns the trope of the girl and the magical being on its head a bit. Morozko was so confident and in control in the first book, and here we see more of his humanity (he might argue weakness) because Vasya makes choices he doesn’t always expect. She unbalances him, and it’s written in a really lovely way. And finally, Vasya’s relationship with Solovey, her horse, is always a highlight. Perhaps it’s a bit Disney-esq, giving Vasya an anthropomorphized animal sidekick, but Solovey is delightful, loyal, and constant. Besides, who doesn’t love a story about a girl and her horse?
I really love the perfect blend of historical fiction and fairy tale-based fantasy that Arden creates. Her work is meticulously researched in both areas, and she weaves them together seamlessly. And it doesn’t hurt that Vasya is a great, complex, and real heroine, especially for high school readers. If you were only to read one book in the series, read The Bear and the Nightingale. But honestly, read the whole series. I cannot wait for the 3rd one!