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.
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.