The Girl in the Tower

By Katherine Arden, An impressive second installment in Arden's Winternight trilogy

I’ve been meaning to read the second book in Katherine Arden’s delightful Winternight Trilogy pretty much ever since I read the first book. Well, actually the plan was to read the second book before the third one came out (which was released earlier this year in January), but obviously that did not happen.

Anyway, I finally finished The Girl in the Tower this week, which I have been reading on and off for a while. I started it, but kept putting it down because I felt like I was missing a bunch of stuff since I had forgotten most of the first book. So then, I had to find time to re-read the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, before I could forge ahead in the second one. Blah blah blah, you get the point.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that it took a while, but I did it, and I am still very enthusiastic about this series. I expect I will read the final book of the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, fairly soon, but we’ll see. I get easily distracted by shiny new books, and there’s a number of July titles I have my eye on.

I’ve included a quick recap of the first book in case someone is reading this and has forgotten what happens in the first book.

The Bear in the Nightingale Quick Recap

Here’s a quick refresher (below) on The Bear and the Nightingale if it’s been a while since you’ve read it.

Show/Hide The Bear and the Nightingale Recap
Vasya is a girl who is raised by her father Pyotr, who is the boyar (feudal lord) of a village called Lesnaya Zemlya. Vasya’s mother died in childbirth. Vasya’s sister is Olya and her brothers are Alyosha, Kolya, and Sasha. Vasya’s grandmother was known among the people to be a “witch”, and was married to the Grand Prince of Muscovy.

During the course of the Bear and the Nightingale, her father gets married to a woman named Anna and has a daughter, Irina. Her sister Olya gets married to a Prince and leaves. Kolya gets married and lives nearby with his family. Sasha is sent to Moscow to be the companion for Prince Dmitrii (their cousin, who is next in line to be Grand Prince), where the two of them grow up in the monastery.

Vasya has the powers her grandmother had, including the gift of sight. She is able to see the spirits (chyerti) that others cannot. From house elves (domovoi) to water nymphs (rusalka) to the horse spirits (vazila), she sees and befriends all the creatures from the folktales and old beliefs. (Anna can see them too, but she believes it is madness.)

When a devout Christian priest, Konstantin, is sent to their village, he discourages adherence in the old beliefs. People stop leaving offerings for the spirits and it weakens them, which prevents them from exerting their protective influence on the village. That winter is harsh, and undead creatures (upyr) attack the village. Vasya instead has to single-handedly sustain the spirits and try to protect them.

It is soon revealed that the undead are being raised by a demon, Medved. There is a conflict going on between two demons, Morozko (The Frost King and God of Death) and Medved (The Bear). The two are brothers, but they are enemies. As the God of Death, Morozko is in charge of the natural order of things. The Bear, meanwhile, lives and thrives on fear and disorder. A long time ago, Morozko had to restrain Medved and keep him captive in the forest to stop him. However, lately the Bear has been growing stronger and will soon be free.

The Bear wants to kill Vasya because killing those with powers make him stronger. Vasya is given a talisman (a blue jewel) by Morozko to protect her. He also turns a nightingale into a stallion, Solovey (which means Nightingale) for her to ride.

At the end of the book, there is a great battle between Morozko and the Bear. All the chyerti choose sides and join in. The chyerti Vasya helped to sustain defend her in the battle. Anna (Vasya’s stepmother) is killed by the Bear because Anna also has the power of sight. Vasya’s father shows up and sacrifices himself to save Vasya. His sacrifice causes the Bear to be bound once again.

With his father dead, Alyosha becomes the boyar (lord) of their village. And Vasya and Solovey ride off since Vasya is now known as a witch and cannot stay.

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

The Girl in the Tower picks up right after the end of The Bear and the Nightingale. After Vasya leaves her village, she sets off to search for adventure and see the world along with her stallion, Solovey. But Moscovy is in turmoil as bandits burn villages and political upheaval is underway, and Vasya soon finds herself embroiled in all of it.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Olya is raising her children and Sasha has become a famous monk. Their paths will cross again with Vasya, but on significantly different footing from before. Vasya’s wildness means they must hide that she is a girl from others, including the Grand Prince Dmitrii. The lie is a dangerous one for all of them, but greater dangers lurk unseen as well.

See The Girl in the Tower on Amazon.

Book Review: Politics and History

The first book in the trilogy is mostly about Vasya and takes place largely in their forested, secluded village of Lesnaya Zemla. Picking up where that story left off, The Girl in the Tower fixes it gaze outwards, playing out on the larger stage of Moscow and the surrounding areas. And while Vasya still retains her central role, her siblings and other characters play more prominent parts in moving the story forward.

Politics and historical context play a larger role in shaping the narrative, too. And as much as I think the story is strong enough to stand on its own, the intertwining of historical context and elements of Russian folktales is what really make the Winternight Trilogy something special.

In the Bird and the Nightingale, Arden introduces the fundamental tension that exists between the old pagan beliefs and the new religion of Christianity. Vasya can see the chyerti, pagan spirits created through the beliefs of humans, and fights against a world that now sees them as demons and outdated children’s tales. It’s a reflection of changes in Russia that were taking place starting sometime around the 10th century when Christianity was being integrated into Russia.

That same context is brought into Girl in the Tower, but it also delves into the politics of the region as well. This story takes place with the backdrop of political upheaval as a result of infighting among the Khans who conquered Rus’ (Russia) during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. With their conquerors in disarray, lawlessness abounds, but it also presents an opportunity for them to be overthrown.

In Girl in the Tower, Tartar (Mongol) bandits are roaming the countryside because the Khans are too busy fighting each other to deal with them, and their presence prompts Vasya’s first forays into a life of adventuring. Meanwhile, Grand Prince Dmitrii has to entertain the Khan’s emissary, even though he hopes to overthrow them.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always loved history, but I found that having the story placed firmly into a proper historical context enhances the stakes in the narrative and makes the story as a whole a lot more engaging. Plus, I was really impressed at how elegantly it all fit together, in a way that feels like a natural extension of everything else that is happening.

Discussion: Vasya and Morozko

As a whole, I thought The Girl in the Tower was really delightful. One thing that gave me pause though was how much more petulant Vasya seems in this part of the story.

In The Bird in the Nightingale, most of the times when Vasya caused “trouble”, it was out of necessity. Other people didn’t know what was going on and she had to do what was right to protect them all, even if it meant it reflected poorly on her. I was on board with all of that.

In the Girl in the Tower, it seems like there’s a lot of things she does that made things needlessly difficult or worse for her and especially others, just because she’s unwilling to compromise in any way or is feeling bold. I was much less into this, since it just seemed a little selfish or childish at times.

I’m hoping in the last book that it gets scaled back a little, since it then detracted from the romance. It just seems weird to me that Morozko with all his ageless wisdom would fall for Vasya with her acting petulant and arrogant at times.

While normally I wouldn’t care, the relationship between Morozko and Vasya plays such a pivotal role here that if it doesn’t work, the story as a whole suffers. Their interactions just seemed more like a parental figure with a misbehaving child than two people where there’s a meeting of the minds. So any romance between them didn’t really work for me.

Read it or Skip it?

Anyone who likes folktale-type stories should absolutely be reading this series. It’s a colorful, inventive and entertaining story, with deep cultural and historical ties.

I was frustrated by some of Vasya’s actions in The Girl in the Tower, but overall really enjoyed the story. In The Bear and the Nightingale, I loved all the folklore and Vasya’s journey to discovering her abilities, but I thought the culmination of the plotline at the end was less coherent than I would’ve liked.

After reading the second book, it seems clear it was because a lot of it was basically setup for what comes next. In The Girl in the Tower, the plot felt much more deliberate and purposeful. But then Vasya’s personal journey felt stunted to me.

I’m hopeful that in the third book both aspects will come together. I like the series enough so far that I’m confident I’ll enjoy it either way.

Are you guys reading this series? What do you think? See The Girl in the Tower on Amazon.


Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)

Prologue

Vasya rides up to Morozko's house in the forest.

Part One

Chapters 1 - 3

Olga is waits for her brother, Sasha to arrive. (Sasha is now more formally known as Brother Aleksandr Peresvet, Lightbringer.) She's pregnant. Her friends, Eudokhia Dmitreeva (Grand Princess of Moscow) and Darinka, engage in idle chatter about ghosts until Olga asks them to stop. They are scaring her children (Daniil and Marya).

Instead, Olga entertains them with the story of the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). In the story, a childless couple build a girl out of snow. Morozko, the Winter King, brings her to life. She is immortal. She falls in love with a shepherd boy and wants to be with him, but if she ventures outside the shadows she will melt. In the end she chooses to follow the shepherd boy and she melts away.

At night, Marya ("Masha") dreams about a ghost. In the morning, Sasha arrives. He has brought a priest with him, who is in need of care. He found him wandering around and rescued him. Olya agrees to take care of the priest.

Sasha has grave news. There are Tatar (Mongol) bandits burning villages. They are taking girls as slaves and slaughtering everyone else. Sasha says he cannot stay long. He needs to stop the bandits. When the Khanate (Kingdom) was unified and strong, the bandits would not have dared to do such things. However, politically things have been in disarray and people are busy fighting among themselves.

(The political situation is that Muscovy, basically the Russian/Rus' Empire, was conquered in the 13th century by the Mongols. They set themselves up as Khans to rule over the many Russian princes, with the Great Khan at the top. But infighting among the Khans means that the Russian Princes think they are weak and no longer want to pay tributes. Meanwile, the Mongol tribes are less scared of the Khans and feel free to pillage as the see fit.)

Sasha visits with Grand Prince Dmitrii, who is his cousin. (Dmitrii is married to Eudokhia). Sasha and Dmitrii had lived in the Trinity Lavra ("Lavra") monastery together for many years so they are close. Sasha gives him an update on the political situation. Dmitrii is hopeful that the Khan's infighting means that they'll have a chance to depose them, making him ruler of all of Rus' (Russia). But Sasha is more concerned about dealing with the bandits first.

Olga tends to the priest, who turns out to be Konstantin Nikonovich. He has come from Lesnaya Zemla (the village Olga/Sasha/etc are from). He tells her that her father is dead and that it is her sister Vasya's fault. He says Vasya is also presumed dead.

Chapters 4 - 5

Father Andrei is the hegumen (leader) of the monastery of the Archangel in Moscow. Sasha turns to him for advice. Andrei tells Sasha to take Dmitrii to hunt bandits. Andrei is worried that Dmitrii is bored and impatient for war to overthrow the Khans. He thinks it's better to occupy him with something else until the time is right.

The next day, a boyar (feudal lord) shows up named Kasyan Lutovich. He has come to plead for help with the bandits. Kasyan says they have been hunting the bandits but can find no trace of them, not even a hoofmark. Dmitrii agrees to help, and soon he and Sasha head out with their men and horses.

They ride for many days and find burned villages, but no sign of the bandits. Kasyan says they seem more like demons than men. In need of rest, Sasha and Dmitrii their men to Lavra, the monastery where the two of them had lived. At the monastery, a rider brought children that have been rescued from the bandits. Sasha is shocked to see the rider is Vasya, his sister.

Part Two

Chapters 6 - 9

The story goes back in time a few weeks to explain how Vasya ended up at the monastery. After leaving the village, Vasya goes to find Morozko (the Frost King). She asks for gold for her travels. She wants to see the world. He advises her against it, saying she should stay safely at home, but eventually consents. She rests for the night and dreams of a white figure who weeps.

The next day, she and Solovey (her horse), set off. They come across an old woman, Polunochnitsa (mean "Midnight"). Vasya is instantly on alert since her nurse once told her tales of two demon sisters, Midnight and Midday, who bring misfortune to travelers. Midnight says that was sent to see her, and will do so two more times, and then she disappears.

They ride for weeks until they finally come across a village. She approaches, dressed as a boy (for safety) and calls herself Vasilii Petrivich. A man named Kasyan Lutovich comes up to her and says she looks familiar.

She goes to the bathhouse to clean up and meets a friendly bathhouse guardian (bannik). As she is bathing, she is attacked by a group of men who are looking for her. The bannik helps to fight them off, as does Solovey. She rides off, but the men follow. It finally snows to cover their tracks and they get away.

When she wakes, she is feverish and freezing. Morozko shows up. He uses the jewel (a talisman, given to her by him in the first book) to heal her. Morokzo worries about Vasya. He gave her the jewel so she could be safe and bear children that would have her powers. Humans with powers keep him from fading away. (The book implies that these demons and deities exist because humans dream them into existence with their beliefs.) But it has also created a bond between him and Vasya. His mare warns him that he is immortal and therefore cannot love.

When Morozko realizes he cannot dissuade her from her travels, he teaches her to fight. Vasya asks him to teach her magic, but he says there's no such thing. She simply has the power to will things into existence or into being what she wants them to be. When Vasya asks him about the death of her parents, she cries. He comforts her, kisses her and leaves.

Vasya sets off again and comes across a burned village, with dead bodies left behind. The survivors explain that bandits took three of their children. Vasya tries to find the bandits but they leave no marks. She goes into a house and offers the domovoi (protective house elf) bread. It tells her how to track the bandits.

She finds them in the woods and sets their horses free to get rid of them. One bandit remains guarding the children, who she kills. She then leads the three children away. When they stop to camp, Midnight shows up for the second time. She tells Vasya to ride west until dawn. Vasya does so, and finds herself at Trinity Lavra monastery.

Part Three

Chapters 10 - 17

Vasya introduces herself as the younger brother of Sasha (since her name is associated with the scandal she left behind) and he plays along. When Dmitrii hears that she saw the bandits, he wants to pursue them immediately and Vasya agrees.

Vasya is tracking them when the bandits ambush them. They fight and fight until Kasyan Lutovich shows up with many warriors, causing the bandits to flee. They hunt them down, but Vasya knows that their leader is not among them.

Later, Sasha tells Brother Sergei the truth about Vasya (and Brother Rodion already recognized Sasha, but didn't say anything). Sergei warns Sasha that Dmitrii will not be pleased if he finds out he was deceived, but Sasha insists it is safer if people think she is a boy. That night, Vasya tells Sasha what happened, but leaves out the magic. She says their father was killed by a bear. She asks him why he never came home, but Sasha does not answer.

Moroko visits Vasya in her dreams. She gets angry at him for coming and going in and out of her life as he pleases and then kissing her. She does not want to be toyed with. He agrees and disappears.

They all head to Moscow, with a stopover at a village because Vasya insists on seeing the children home (Dmitrii assumes it is because Vasya as a guy is interested in the oldest girl, Katya, but obviously that's not the case). On the way, Kasyan mentions a woman he once loved, who was killed. Sasha is curious about who Kasyan is, since he seemed to have come out of nowhere but has great horses and men with him.

In Moscow, Vasya reunites with Olya. Olya and Sasha are both worried about how to conceal that Vasya is a girl, and they are afraid of angering Dmitrii if he finds out he was lied to. There is a holiday (Maslenitsa) coming up, and the plan is for "Vasilii" (Vasya's name as a boy) to be "sent home" afterwards.

Chapters 18 - 20

At dinner, Dmitrii brings news that his wife is pregnant, finally. Also, an ambassador of the Khan (Chelubey) has arrived to demand tribute, which Dmitrii stopped paying when the Khans were too busy fighting one another. When they go to greet them, Vasya recognizes the ambassador as the bandit captain.

She tells Sasha, but he is dismissive and is more concerned about what exactly happened with their father. Sasha has spoken with Konstantin who says that that Vasya is mad and dead. He knows that there's something he's not being told. When Vasya still doesn't tell him the full truth, he stalks off angrily.

Marya (Olya's daughter) tells Vasya that she knows she is a girl and also that she can also see the chyerti (spirits) that Vasya can see. Vasya tells her that it's ok, that they are real, and it is not madness. Vanya takes Marya to visit the bannik (bath-house guardian) to show her she has nothing to be afraid ok. It is faint and weak, but it is there. Vanya gives it an offering to make it stronger.

Vasya then takes Marya riding. They see a untamed brown horse that Marya likes, and Vasya sees Chelubey again. He makes it clear he knows that she recognizes him. Chelubey purchases the brown horse. Vasya makes a wager with him that she will be able to ride it in a few hours. If she wins, she gets the horse. If she loses, she'll give him Solovey.

Vasya wins the best and names the horse Zima, meaning "Winter". Kasyan sees all of this and interrupts when Chelubey seems eager to fight Vasya. Kasyan and Vasya leave, and Vasya tells him the truth about Chelubey -- that he is the bandit captain. Vasya wants to tell Dmitrii, but Kasyan says he will find someone to collect evidence first. At dinner, Kasyan playfully challenges her to a horse-race and she accepts. That night, they feast for the beginning of Maslenitsa (a week-long Russian folk holiday), Morozko shows up, kisses Vasya and tells her to be wary.

The next morning, Vasya and Kasyan get ready to race. Kasyan shows up with a magnificent horse. He offers a wager. If she wins, she get the horse. If he wins, he wants to marry her (revealing that he has known all along that she is a girl). They start racing and when they near the end, he reaches out and rips off her hood, revealing that she is a girl to everyone.

Once revealed, Dmitrii is angry. Kasyan seizes Solovey. They take off her clothes, though Sasha tries to stop them. Father Andei, Hegumen of the Archangel monastery, interrupts, saying this is improper. Sasha is confined to the monastery, and Vasya is taken away to be confined with Olya.

Chapters 21 - 23

Olya is familiar with the politics of Moscow and realizes that Kasyan has outmaneuvered them to win favor with Dmitrii. He has convinced them to confine Vasya with her so that the matter will take her down as well. Olya is angry and sad. She tells Vasya that if Dmitrii is angry enough, he may tell her husband to put her aside and take away her children. She warns her that she will denounce Vasya before she allows her children to be taken away.

Konstantin gets word that Vasya is alive and all the gossip. Kasyan asks him for his help in a plot, knowing that he dislikes Vasya. Konstantin agrees.

In her room, the ghost that everyone has been seeing visits her. The ghost tells her she must run. Tonight. That Kasyan will take Moscow tonight. She disappears, and Morozko appears, telling Vasya she needs to leave. He tells her that Kasyan is a sorcerer, and his real name is Kaschei and that he cannot be killed. Morozko also says that Kasyan is strong and has ways of preventing Morozko from going near him.

Kasyan then demands an audience with Vasya. He tells her he can save her and protect her siblings, if she marries him. Kasyan admits to sending the men to attack her in the bathhouse and paying the bandit-captain to pretend to be an ambassador. Vasya agrees to marry him, for the sake of her sibings. Kasyan kisses her and tries to put a ruby jewel on her, but cannot. He sees her blue jewel and tells her to get rid of it, that it makes her a slave to the Frost King (Morozko). He tells her they will be married tomorrow.

After Vasya tells Olya the news, Olya is relieved. She tells Vasya the stories she has heard about their grandmother, Tamara. Tamara was wild as well. Vasya tells Olya that she thinks Kasyan is planning on attacking Dmitrii tonight, but in that moment Olya goes into labor.

Olya dies in childbirth, but when Morozko goes to take her, Vasya does not permit it. Morozko says that either Olya or the child can live, and Olya chooses the child. But Vasya is able to force Olya back to life, which kills the child. Olya survives and the child is stillborn. Olya is heartbroken. Konstantin shows up and denounces Vasya as a witch. He tries to take her away, but Vasya knees him in the groin and leaves. <

As Vasya escapes, Morozko finds her. Vasya demands the truth about the jewel from him. He tells her it binds him to her, makes him stronger and prevents him from fading. He needs her emotions. Morozko also tells her that the day before he died, Pyotr (her father) had agreed to give up his life to bind the Bear and save the people. Vasya does not wish to be Morozko's worshiper and takes off the jewel. It melts into water.

Part Four

Chapters 24 - 27

Sasha is stuck in a locked cell. Rodion brings news about what he has uncovered regarding Kasyan. That he hired the bandits to burn the villages, that he paid Chelubey to pretend to be an emissary. He says Kasyan resides at the Bashnya Kostei (The Tower of Bones) and it is no place for a man to live.

Vasya barges in, telling them that Kasyan plans to attack tonight. Everyone is drunk from the holiday revelries and Dmitrii has no heir yet, so Kasyan wants to kill Dmitrii and become the Grand Prince. Sasha, Vasya and Rodion bust out Sasha from his cell and leave.

Vasya climbs over the gate to the Grand Prince's palace and draws out a chyerti with her blood. She asks the dvorovoi (a dooryard spirit) to raise a ruckus. Soon, shrieks and barks and clamour erupts from the palace. People awake. Kasyan has already killed some guards, and now a full on battle is on.

Vasya runs to the stables to free Solovey. She sees that the mare that Kasyan rode is glowing. She frees it from its bridle and it tranforms into a great golden bird, the Firebird (Zhar Ptitsa), which flies away. She then frees Zima and rides out on Solovey. As she heads out, she sees Konstantin has taken Masha hostage, who Kasyan then shows up and takes her away towards the tower. Vasya tells Konstantin that the next time she sees him, she will kill him.

Vasya leaves the stables to find that Chelubey has shown up but with shadowy warriors. Dmitrii's men are losing hope. In the fracas, Dmitrii forgives Sasha and they fight together. Vasya runs up to the tower to save Masha from Kasyan. On her way up, she sees visions of people she loves, dead. The ghost from before it there too.

When Vasya enters, she sees Kasyan (Kaschei the Deathless) sitting there with Masha. Masha is wearing the red jewel. Kasyan breaks Vasya's ribs. As Kasyan is about to attack Vasya again, the ghost walks in. Kasyan addresses it as Tamara (Vasya's grandmother). Tamara says that she came to the Palace to get away from Kasyan many years ago.

Vasya engages Kasyan/Kaschei in a struggle and is able to get the red jewel off Masha. Vasya remembers from Dunya's (her nurse) tales that Kaschei keeps his life stored away. She reaches out for an invisible necklace which she realizes Tamara must be wearing, which allows her to retrieve the fragile stone. By putting his life into Tamara, neither of them have been able to die properly. Kaschei says he will kill Masha unless she leaves it alone.

With Kaschei weakened, Morozko is able to show up. Vasya attacks Kaschei to get Masha away and crushes the stone. Kaschei dies. Tamara smiles and leaves with Morozko as well.

Back downstairs, the phantoms have disappeared. Bodies are everywhere. There is still fire from the firebird. Midnight shows up a third time. She asks if Kaschei and Tarmara are dead and comments that "Her mother will be glad" though Vasya doesn't understand the meaning.

Midnight tells Vasya that she weakened Morozko by taking off the charm, which he put his powers into. Morozko could stop the fire when he was powerful, but now he cannot. She also says that the charm made him more human, and he loved her, but Vasya banished him with her words.

She runs into the smoke in order to force Morozko to show up. As Death, he comes to anyone who is dying. She tells him she loved him too and uses her power to drag him back to Moscow and asks him to put out the fire. She kisses him, and soon a snowstorm falls.

When the fire is out, Vasya tells Sasha and Olya the full story of what happened with their father.

See The Girl in the Tower on Amazon.

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