I finally read the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale: The Girl in the Tower (although it took longer to get to it than I wanted). Katherine Arden impressed me once again with a gripping story rife with magic, history, and the human spirit. I was not disappointed.
Thanks to Vasya’s efforts to save her village and people in the last book, she’s seen as a witch in her own home—the Middle Ages are thick with superstition, where the incomprehensible is met with superstition and fear. She escapes; she dresses as a boy and rides away on Solovey (her awesome horse who was foaled…or was it hatched?). She wants to be a traveler and explore the world, so Morozko—the frost demon, the God of Winter—gifts her with provisions and sends her on her way. He’s unhappy with her decisions, though, because such a path for a female is dangerous, and he has found himself caring for her.
During Vasya’s travels she rescues children taken captive by bandits, discovers a Mongol plot against Muscovy, meets up with her elder siblings (who are not exactly thrilled that she’s sauntering around as a boy), and races Solovey against a horse who is not a horse. If this is not enough, there’s Morozko who can’t seem to stay away, a handsome stranger who is unnervingly interested in her, Konstatin showing up again, and a developing friendship with the Grand Prince himself.
I love that you can read this book without having to read the first one. Not that you should. You should read all of them, but one does not depend on the other. It stands alone. That being said, this book is richer for having read the first one. Relationships are deeper, richer.
Vasya isn’t done growing and learning, and this book further develops her character. She does so much good, is so fierce and determined, that you can forget she’s just a teenager until she does something impetuous or spontaneous or childish. She makes mistakes here, and learns from them. I love flawed heroes and heroines (one reason I like Maria V. Snyder—and now Katherine Arden—so much). Plus Vasya’s appeal isn’t based on beauty:
“Vasilisa Petrovna was no beauty as her people counted it. Too tall, the women had said when she came of age. Far too tall. As for a figure, she has scarce more than a boy.
“Mouth like a frog, her stepmother had added, with spite. What man would take a girl with that chin?”
It’s based on the force of her personality. It’s such a good message.
Morozko is more human than ever. And more conflicted. He’s not supposed to feel, and it’s impossible when hanging around Vasya for any period of time.
We learn more about Sasha and Olga, the two of Vasya’s siblings that were absent for the majority of the last book. On one hand they love their sister, on the other they are a product of their culture with very rigid beliefs about what’s right and proper for women. They find these assumptions challenged when reunited with their strange and determined sister.
Even the Grand Prince, Dmitrii Ivanovich, is well-rounded. He’s both a cold ruler and a loving cousin.
The thing is, Katherine Arden’s characters are all interesting and well-developed, not just the main ones.
The story actually starts from Ogla’s point of view, and then moves to Sasha. You don’t even hear from Vasya until Part 2, which is awesome because Part 1 gives you a unique look into the history of Russia, the character of the Grand Prince, and the personality of Vasya’s siblings. It’s like an intro into the rest of the story. There’s one character in this book who you see in passing and you assume is just another minor actor…but its not, and it adds to the interesting plot twist at the end.
The writing, as I’ve come to expect from Katherine Arden, is beautiful and lyrical. Like a fairy tale wrapped in the wild Russian past.
“Every time you take one path, you must live with the memory of the other: of a life left unchosen. Decide as seems best, one course or the other; each way will have its bitter with its sweet.”
“I carve things of wood because things made by effort are more real than things made by wishing.”
“Close your eyes,” he said into her ear. “Come with me.” She did so, and suddenly she saw what he saw. She was the wind, the clouds gathering in the smoky sky, the thick snow of deep winter. She was nothing. She was everything. The power gathered somewhere in the space between them, between her flickers of awareness. There is no magic. Things are. Or they are not. She was beyond wanting anything. She didn’t care whether she lived or died. She could only feel; the gathering storm, the breath of the wind.”
Try to wrap your head around this one:
“Things are or they are not, Vasya,” he interrupted. “If you want something, it means you do not have it, it means that you do not believe it is there, which means it will never be there. The fire is or it is not. That which you call magic is simply not allowing the world to be other than as you will it.”
This one is a spoiler, but beautiful, so read if you dare:
“With that sapphire, he bound your strength to him, but the magic did what he did not intend; it made him strong but also pulled him closer and closer to mortality, so that he was hungry for life, more than a man and less a demon. So that he loved you, and did not know what to do.”
This book. Was. Amazing. It’s a middle book in a trilogy that doesn’t feel like a middle book. It contains its own fairy tales, both separate from and connected to those in the first book. It shows the power of determination. It shows the power of women whether it’s the independence of Vasya who’s forging new paths for females or the love and intelligence of Olga who’s living a traditional life that’s just as powerful in its own way. This book articulates the power of love—of all kinds.