The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden



*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden is the second novel in the Winternight Trilogy. The first book in the series, The Bear and the Nightingale, earned a rare five rocket rating from us because it’s that good. Well, Ms. Arden has done it again: The Girl in the Tower continues the elegant storytelling and magnificent worldbuilding of the first book and earns another five rocket rating for the second installment in the Winternight Trilogy. In the interests of full disclosure, we received a copy of The Girl in the Tower from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

The reader is drawn back into the story right where the first book ended. Vasya has left her home for fear of what might happen to her with her father gone and because her wild streak demands she set out to see more of the world than just her small corner of it. Though she sets out to see far distant corners, she doesn’t make it any further than the region surrounding Moscow when mysterious riders take an unexpected interest in her. With bandits burning villages indiscriminately and Vasya’s brother, Sasha, soon at hand, Vasya finds herself embroiled in Moscow’s plots and machinations, and the designs she’d had for her life fall by the wayside.

Morozko is back, as are many other beings taken from Russian folklore. As before, only Vasya can communicate with them. They are an integral part of the story, but not nearly as much as in the first book. There is a deeper mystery in this book, however, one which I won’t go into to any degree for fear of giving something away. I will say only that it has something to do with the title of the book.

Vasya remains a strong and brave character, but one who is extremely vulnerable if only because of the constraints put upon all women of that time period. She does achieve a certain amount of freedom beyond the norm, but only when she is on her own (or subsisting with Morozko’s help). The moment she steps back into society, she quickly finds herself shackled. Any other woman would accept such imprisonment, yet because of her resolve and willingness to sacrifice herself, Vasya breaks free of such constraints and ultimately achieves things that no other person can.

I think it’s important to close with a look at what the author is doing to make this such a great series so far. There’s the setting: Russia, set in a time period that has the flavor of the middle ages. There’s the mythology and folklore, which, despite the influence of Christianity, brings with it a great amount of superstition. Also, there’s the characters, which defy stereotypes in many respects. Last, there’s the writing, which is consistently good and always moving the story forward. Getting any one of these right is not that hard. But getting them all right? It’s not common.

The Girl in the Tower is another fantastic read from a true up and coming author. If you haven’t started reading these books, you need to start now. It’s rare a series this good comes along, so don’t miss it.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden



*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is very much a story in the Uprooted vein. At its simplest, we have a rebellious daughter with hidden talents who must align herself with mythological, dubious intentioned entities else lose the lives of her family, her people, and quite possibly her very way of life. At its simplest, that is the story Arden has crafted, but The Bear and the Nightingale is so much more than that simple synopsis. Set in a rich world full of tradition, politics, and magic, the author strikes the perfect balance between nuanced, vibrant characters with complex motives and personalities and a plot that continuously moves forward.

Vasilisa Petrovna’s birth is marked by death when her mother dies giving her life. Her mother, Marina, who is possessed of special gifts, knows Vasilisa, or Vasya, will be her last child and that she will not survive the ordeal, but she gives birth to her daughter anyway because she knows the gifts Vasya will bring into the world will be even greater than her own. Vasya is raised a wild child. Not because of her father’s lack of tutelage but because she is a creature that will not be controlled. Often she slips into the woods on her own, walking the forest paths and meeting the mythological dwellers there that only she can see. On one such walk she comes upon a great tree and a one-eyed man sleeping at its base. The man is no man at all, but a demon who slumbers now but is slowly waking. Once he does wake, he promises “everlasting life” to any who follow him. His offer is not what it may seem, of course, and so Vasya finds herself in opposition to the waking demon.

Vasya is a headstrong woman in a world where such initiative is not often desired nor praised unless such person is a man. But Konstantin, Vasya’s daughter, is an understanding man who knows his daughter’s fire comes from her mother. I liked Konstantin a lot. He is very much walking a line of his own between the traditional world he lives in and a more progressive one where he sees his daughter’s wild spirit free to do as she pleases. The times when he considers his Vasya toiling over a hot stove and seeing to her children and husband’s needs he is stricken with a heavy heart, for he knows the great potential Vasya possesses would be wasted on such a life. At the very end, Konstantin knows what he has to do to set his daughter free forever; his love for her is strong enough that he never hesitates.

There are many other interesting characters: a priest whose story takes an unforeseen turn when he meets Vasya, a stepmother who embodies much of the atypical stepmother role so often seen in fairy tales, and an ensemble of brothers and sisters who are mostly supportive. Then there are the creatures whom only Vasya can see: vodianoy, vazila, upyrs aplenty, rusalka, and the brothers who are demons whom the real story revolves around. I’ll refrain from delving too much into any one of these, especially the brothers, for fear of giving something away, but suffice to say that the brothers are opposed to one another and Vasya finds herself caught in the middle.

Of the world Arden has built for her novel all I can say is very well done. Set in the world of Rus’, it is very much a Russia that may have existed to some degree but many aspects only in folklore. Still, it is a beautiful depiction of a deep winter world where families huddle together around their oven to sleep and stay warm and where the coming snow cuts off entirely the rural community Vasya calls home from the rest of the world.

The Bear and the Nightingale is historical fantasy fiction at its best. A vibrant world, rich characters, more than a hint of the supernatural, and an endearing main character who doesn’t have all the answers but isn’t afraid to find them makes this a must-read. Vasya’s story continues in The Girl in the Tower. It’s already on my reading list.