I'm not quite sure why I didn't follow up Katherine Arden's debut, 'The Bear and the Nightingale' immediately with the second in her Winternight trilogy, which I had in hand. Maybe it was because it was such a winter book and the summer for me in Phoenix starts as early as February. Maybe it was because I was so blown away by it that I was almost scared to read the sequel in case it didn't do the same thing. Maybe life just got in the way.
Whatever the reason, I eventually got there and this review is the result. I have to say right out of the gate that I enjoyed the book but not as much as its predecessor. 'The Bear and the Nightingale' felt like a timeless, exotic fairy tale to treasure and revisit. By comparison, I'd simply describe 'The Girl in the Tower' as a very good book and I feel bad sounding dismissive.
That's not a bad thing at all and, quite frankly, a slew of authors with New York Times bestselling novels behind them may well dream about writing this well. However, it inevitably fails to invoke the same level of magic as its predecessor because it moves our heroine out from the isolated rural village of Lesnaya Zemlya in the far north of the lands of the Rus' and into a world full of people and noise and politics. Fairy tales work best by the light of candles, not in the bustle of capital cities.
That heroine is Vasilisa Petrovna, daughter of the boyar of Lesnaya Zemlya, and she has the second sight, inherited from her mother, so she can see and interact with the chertyi, local spirits who live everywhere, some of whom are tasked with protecting people. That book told of how the new priest from Moscow pushed the fear of the Christian Lord to her family and neighbours so hard that the chertyi started to fade from neglect, risking the people in the process. It was Vasya who saved them, with help from Morozko, or Frost.
Vasilisa grew up during that first book and she's far from a little girl in this second one. She doesn't even show up in this book until the second part almost fifty pages in but she dominates it through sheer will. She's too big a character to fit in a small world, "fiercely, defiantly alive" and her own are scared of her and call her 'witch-woman'. So she goes to Morozka for the gold to allow her to ride away into the world and explore.
Because this is mediaeval Russia, a land of men, she disguises herself as a young man and gradually finds her way towards the wider plot. Villages have been razed, their people killed or taken and even Dmitrii, the Grand Prince of Moscow, finds that he must go out to fight whatever is doing it. With an inherent advantage, in that she can talk with the chertyi left that nobody else can see, she steals girls back from the killers and rides them through the forest to safety in a nearby monastery.
So far, so good. But her brother Sasha, now Brother Aleksandr, is there and can't fail to recognise her through her disguise. The Grand Prince is there too and, because she's found the first victory in an unseen war, he has her (or him, as Dmitrii believes) help consolidate that. Before long, Vasya, as Vasilii Petrovich, is proclaimed a hero and brought back to Moscow, where a disguise is, of course, harder to maintain.
If the increased scale takes some of the magic out of this series, it adds a shocking level of import. The stakes are far higher, the intrigue much more complicated, the danger more immediate. All of these things help the tension grow and grow as we start to realise what's really going on and who some of the key players really are. And, throughout it all, there's a constant fear that Vasilii will be unmasked as Vasilisa, something that would take but a single moment. We hope it doesn't happen but we fear that it must and we worry about what it will mean. If 'The Bear and the Nightingale' is a small and exquisite self-contained fairy tale, 'The Girl in the Tower' is a fairy tale hidden within a wild and raucous grandeur that pretends to be a city.
In my review of the first book, I wondered about how the feminist angle that can't fail to be seen in Vasya would fare in the follow-up. It fares so well that we often forget that it's there, so inherent is it within a story that we don't want to leave. I'm a sucker for strong heroines but rarely have I rooted for one so much as I have Vasya. She's drawn magnificently well, not only because of what she can do but because of what she can't do yet. She's the hero Vasilii is proclaimed but her heroics are the most mundane things about her. Her struggles and her less-known victories are far more vibrant.
There's nothing here I didn't like beyond it not being the first book and I suggest no problem with that. Vasya has grown but she has growing yet to do. Her relationship with Morozko is a fascinating one but it's never remotely traditional. Vasya refuses to play anyone else's role and that stubbornness is her nemesis as much as her salvation. Other characters are often defined by how they do play the roles they're given and how they can't grasp why an escape from them might be considered. Moscow is well-drawn and as engaging as it is horrifying. What happens there is an emotional rollercoaster ride for us, because we gradually grasp the ironies and inevitabilities and how fairy stories don't tend to have happy endings.
The Yorkshireman in my heart thinks that November ought to be winter, even if the Phoenix sun refuses to acknowledge that. I have little idea of where the last book in the Winternight trilogy, 'The Winter of the Witch' aims to take us, but I'm looking forward to finding out next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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