book review: the girl in the tower

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Del Rey, 363 pp.
Published December 5, 2017

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues 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.

The Winternight trilogy continues on in stunning fashion with The Girl in the Tower. Moving from the snowy countryside of rural Russia to the bustling capital of Moscow, Vasya's story becomes more entangled in the social and political intrigues her father and step-mother fretted over in the first novel. Although she spends much of the time disguised as a boy, our heroine remains recognizable. Trousers and a hidden braid imbue no hidden powers, no unrealized strengths to make Vasya something she's not. All her disguise does is gain her entry to a world unwelcoming towards women and allow her natural skills, frowned upon when present in girls, to shine.

Like The Bear and the Nightingale before it, Tower takes its time building up momentum. After briefly checking in with Vasya where we left her at the end of the first book, the narrative picks up with her nobly married sister in Moscow. There Arden introduces us to the customs, expectations, and powerful undercurrents running through the aristocratic class. Once again she does an excellent job of easing the reader into a possibly unfamiliar culture whose social mores will play a significant role in the action to come. Rather than assuming any foreknowledge, she reintroduces minor characters and further develops them alongside this new setting.

Vasya grows as well. The greater freedom afforded by her disguise further cements her conviction to roam independently rather than lock herself away in a tower as a wife or nun. That latitude, unfortunately, also provides more room to cause trouble; moving in the circles closest to the Grand Prince, her mistakes and miscalculations carry even graver consequences than those that happened in the relative isolation of her father's home.

Though she's traveled far, familiar faces crop up to once again influence events. Konstantin the wayward priest continues licking his wounds over his embarrassment at Vasya's hands. Supplanting him is a new, shadowy foe whose revelation towards the book's end was a darkly delightful and unexpected surprise with ties to Vasya's past. The frost king Morozko drifts in and out as well, a moth both wary of and uncaring towards the dangerous flame. His chemistry with Vasya continues to develop with a delicate, considered slow burn. Matters between the immortal and mortal are far from resolved by Tower's end, resulting in an exquisitely painful cliffhanger.

The magic and charm of The Bear and the Nightingale only grows in this worthy sequel. Arden has cemented herself as a master storyteller and a bright new talent in the fantasy genre. The Girl in the Tower transitions smoothly from the wild woods of rural Russia to the glittering halls and stuffy towers of Moscow. Vasya's journey continues to entrance as it leads her closer to the final confrontation that will determine her future, as well as that of all those whom she loves. It may be a short and summery wait until the third and final book drops this August next January, but to me it feels like being stuck in the deepest, darkest winter anticipating The Winter of the Witch.


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