The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden is the second book in the Winternight series, and it elevates fairy tale retellings to a whole new level.
If you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale, you may want to hold off reading this review. I’d hate to be responsible for sharing a spoiler.
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.
Vasilisa faces an impossible choice. Driven from her home by frightened villagers, she has only two option left: 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 she 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.
I enjoy a good fairy tale retelling, and this book not only includes actual fairy tales within the story, but the way it is told makes it feel even more fairy tale like. The setting is incredible, and I found myself longing to get bundled up in a big, fluffy blanket as I read about this cold, snowy world that I can barely imagine. A place in which winter lasts for seven months out of the year, with snowdrifts taller than a person, and the risk of freezing to death or experiencing frostbite is a constant companion isn’t anything remotely close to my own experiences, but the book is written in a way that makes it feel like my own reality.
Vasilisa is a tough, smart woman who doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles in Russia circa 14th century.
“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.”
After the conclusion of the last book, Vasya’s village views her as a witch, and her options are to get married or go to a convent. Neither of those prospects appeal to her any more than they did in the previous book, so she decides to make her own path in life — an option that was not available to women. Instead, she dresses like a boy.
“‘Stay in the forest. That is safest. Avoid the dwellings of men, and keep your fires small. If you speak to anyone, say you are a boy. The world is not kind to girls alone.’"
The journey brings her into dangerous situations. Because of Solovey, various spirits, and her intellect, she is able to get out of these situations for the most part.
Vasya crosses paths with a group of Tatar bandits that behave differently than bandits normally do.
“‘Bandits, the people said, yet unlike bandits. For these men took little strong drink, and little loot, yet they burned villages with a fierce fire. They looked into the face of every girl and took the ones they wished.’”
When Vasya is propelled to hero status in the eyes of Moscow and Grand Prince Dimitrii, this also puts her into greater danger from various people. Through all of this, her experiences make her question the people around her, leaving her unsure of who to trust. I loved the complex dynamic between Vasya and Morozko, where neither one is willing to admit what is lurking beneath the surface.
The story gave some interesting perspective on what life was like in those days — when monks could also be warriors, women were excessively constrained by gender roles, and life could be snuffed out by any number of threats. Childbirth, illness, injury, raids, hunger, weather, fire, and political intrigue were all risks that people living in these times faced. This story deals exceptionally well with each of these factors in a way that wasn’t overdone or excessively graphic. I can’t wait to read the final book in the series!
People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn't an upper limit.
Gasp Factor: 8
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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