The Girl in the Tower
by Katherine Arden
For a young woman in medieval Russia, the choices are stark: marriage or a life in a convent. Vasya will choose a third way: magic…
The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest. Meanwhile bandits roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping its daughters. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince and his trusted companion come across a young man riding a magnificent horse.
Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior’s training, recognises this ‘boy’ as his younger sister, thought to be dead or a witch by her village. But when Vasya proves herself in battle, riding with remarkable skill and inexplicable power, Sasha realises he must keep her secret as she may be the only way to save the city from threats both human and fantastical…
Check out my review of The Bear and the Nightingale!
Following the events of the first book, Vasya has fled from her family’s rural home and, with the help of the winter king, sets her heart on seeing the world and the wonders it has to offer. A life for a woman alone in medieval Russia is not easy, however, and even less so while winter reigns and the villages around Moscow start to be destroyed by Russia’s enemies. Disguised as a man, Vasya accidentally involves herself in the war on Russia’s doorstep which ultimately leads her not only to Moscow, but also to be reunited with her beloved brother and sister, Sasha and Olga.
If The Bear and the Nightingale told a winding tale of Russian folklore, The Girl in the Tower has much more of a focus on the history of medieval Russia. There are still fantasy elements in this book expertly woven into the larger story—I love the way Arden writes Russian folklore and the pre-Christian creatures that are slowly fading in a Christian world—but I think this second instalment in the trilogy is more historical fiction than it is fantasy. To be honest, I think it needed to be.
One of the things I most appreciated about this novel is that Vasya is in a lot of danger. I have a nostalgic fondness for the ‘woman disguised as man’ trope (I think Eowyn and Mulan are to blame for a lot of that), and while these days we’re having more discussions around that trope—if a story is in a completely fantastical world, which this one isn’t, why should the patriarchy exist in the same way as it does in our world? And does this trope ignore a lot of the exploration into trans and non-binary identities?—it does make sense in this tale. Life in medieval Russia is no friend to a woman alone, not only because she could be forced to fight off a sexual assault but also because she could be accused of witchcraft. Especially a woman like Vasya who is considered ‘wild’ and has no desire to marry or join a convent.
So much of The Girl in the Tower is a tense reading experience, especially towards the end, because we know just how dangerous the consequences for Vasya could be if she were discovered when she arrives in Moscow in men’s clothes.
Plus as a history nerd, and a history nerd who knows almost nothing about Russian history, this was such a refreshing world to live in and I was glad that the fantasy elements in the story didn’t get in the way of me soaking up what a life in what is now Russia in this period of history might have been like. It’s so clear that Arden has a passion for this history and culture, and I love it when I can feel an author’s passion on every page in that way.
It’s been a while since I read a historical novel that felt like such an adventure, and Vasya herself feels like the kind of heroine I might encounter in a Russian folktale. She doesn’t always make good decisions but her decisions all come from a good, albeit sometimes naïve, place—which is to be expected when she’s barely seen anything of the world. She wants more than what the world is ready to offer her as a woman, but she doesn’t want more at the expense of other women; this novel is about Vasya using the power she has when Moscow thinks she’s a man to help those who are also weak, not about Vasya monologuing about how she’s not like other girls™.
I enjoyed seeing Sasha again, too. I’m fascinated by religions and I love when characters who work within religion, whether they’re nuns or friars or priestesses, turn up in fiction. I’d’ve liked to have seen even more of Sasha, actually, and I’m hoping we might see a little more of him and Olga in the final book.
Morozko is another well-drawn character. Death gods are always popular in fantasy fiction, and particularly in fiction inspired by Russian folklore, I’ve noticed, but I rarely see them portrayed in a way that suits how I imagine them. Morozko, however, feels the way I expect a pagan deity to feel. He has that same aloof yet alluring quality that the Staryk king in Spinning Silver and Hun-Kamé in Gods of Jade and Shadow have.
That said, and I get the feeling this is something of an unpopular opinion, I don’t think Vasya and Morozko have that much chemistry. I like them individually and I enjoy their scenes together—I love how often he finds himself saving Vasya from herself when she makes a dumbass decision, and how clear it is that she both infuriates and intrigues him—but I felt like The Girl in the Tower wrote the two of them as though they had this long history when they don’t spend any time together for the majority of The Bear and the Nightingale. I thought we’d see more of the two of them getting to know each other in this novel, and instead I thought they were written as though they already knew each other much better than they really do.
That didn’t take away from my wider enjoyment of this story, though, because I don’t think Vasya and Morozko’s relationship is really the focus of this story at all and I love that this is a tale of Vasya trying to find her place in the world, rather than Vasya agonising over an immortal man she can’t have. Like its predecessor, this novel is beautifully written and the amount of research that’s gone into it is clear. Once this story has settled, I’ll be looking forward to picking up The Winter of the Witch!