The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

(Warning: there’s gonna be serious spoilers after the review proper and vague ones near the end. I’ll put in warnings before the proper bits but just in case: definitely don’t scroll beyond the bulletpoint list.)

The Girl in the Tower is a great sequel and an overall lovely book to curl up with this winter.

It continues Vasya’s adventures immediately where they left off at the end of last year’s excellent The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya wants to travel and see more of Russia and beyond with her trusty magical horse Solovey. Along the way she runs into her brother, Sasha, who had left to become a priest years previously. Their reunion is not as joyous as Vasya had hoped for. To avoid bringing shame to their family due to being a single woman travelling alone, the siblings must pretend she is a boy. This means lying to everyone around them, including Sasha’s close friend and cousin, the Grand Prince of Moscow. The Prince has his own problems: bandits are burning nearby villages to the ground and kidnapping young peasant girls to sell as slaves. Vasya promises to help her brother and cousin but it’s not clear whether her deception and unusual magical gifts will ultimately help or hurt.

This sequel remains just as enchanting as the first book but which of the two a reader prefers will be up to personal tastes. The Girl in the Tower is certainly a lot more plot-oriented: there’s bandit fights, shady ambassadors from the Mongolian Khaganate, and horse races. The chyerti (traditional spirits from Russian folklore) play a slightly smaller role; on the other hand, the mysterious god of winter and death Morozko finally becomes slightly less mysterious. The sequel is not as ‘dark’ as the first book, though I found one of the scenes more brutal. Nevertheless, at the heart of it all is still Vasya herself, fiercely independent and a little hot-tempered.

Personally, I enjoyed book 2 more but that’s just due to my own background. I’m Ukrainian. Russian is my mother tongue and I was raised on these fairytales. I liked The Bear and the Nightingale but for a huge part of it I was too busy thinking: I’m having fun — please, please don’t mess up. (Not helped by Vasya having a boy’s nickname. It’s like reading a book by a Chinese author that’s set in England and has a female character named ‘Mike’. It takes a little while to figure out if the author is being deliberate she’s a tomboy and all  or messed up some pretty basic research.) This time around I knew I was in good hands. The depiction of medieval Russia and its folklore is one of the primary highlights of the book. There’s tons of detail: from the highly confined life of traditional noblewomen, to tensions between Moscow and the Mongolian Khaganate, to the fascinating glimpses of an even wider magical world… There’s even sly little tidbits to delight people like me — throwaway fairytale references and translations of Russian sayings that I’d stop and puzzle out the original for (“The morning is wiser than the evening”, yep).

The prose in this book remains fantastic and lush. Arden is great at drawing you into the story and the setting. Fittingly, I noticed it especially in terms of temperature: the deathly cold of Winter and the relaxing heat of the bathhouse. I’m not the right person to tell whether the usage of Russian-specific terms (names, titles, and other words for “taste”) is overwhelming or not but I definitely found it smoother than in the first book. There’s a glossary and an explanation about name conventions at the back just in case.

None of the book would work, however, without Vasya herself. If The Bear and the Nightingale was Vasya’s coming-of-age story, here she is a confident young woman, eager to prove herself to the world. It’s especially fun to watch her play the “older sister” role to her niece, a great reversal from her relationships with most of the characters in the first book. Not that Vasya doesn’t have a lot left to learn: she’s still uncertain about her magical powers, endearingly amazed even by small towns, and brashly unaware of the Moscow court’s intrigues. Watching her explore the wider world, so different from her countryside home, made me grin.

Unfortunately, the book is marred by some mishandling of the ending. (Warning 2: I’m going to remain vague but this paragraph does involve a discussion of the final part of the book! Mild vague spoilers follow.) The final part attempts a twist, but the set-up for it is a little disappointing and thus it is ultimately not as strong as it could have been. Because of my background, the “big reveal” was obvious to me within the first five chapters; some hints are enjoyably subtle but one is so on the nose I was actually a bit disappointed my guess wasn’t wrong. On the other hand, because the reveal was supposed to be a surprise, for my (Scottish) co-blogger Hiu there wasn’t enough cultural context. What should be a powerful, thrilling moment thus gets the reaction, “Oh, ok then” and the climax is a bit of a jumble. In particular, there’s a bit where the traditional fairytale explanation is given and then subverted three sentences later. The set-up just isn’t long enough for the subversion to feel clever unless you know the original already. It’s a real shame that the fantastic, gradual inclusion of traditional Russian elements falters at the end in favour of a (pretty unnecessary, in my opinion) surprise.

Nevertheless, altogether I found The Girl in the Tower a strong sequel. I’m eagerly looking forward to book 3, The Winter of the Witch, which should come out August 2018. I particularly recommend this book for:

  • Fans of fantasy that draws on traditional folklore
  • Fans of strong-willed and tomboyish female protagonists
  • Fans of historical fantasy
  • People interested in folklore that doesn’t get used much in English-language fantasy books
  • People who like cool magical spirits and magical talking horses
  • No seriously Vasya is totally a horse girl and it’s awesome

For completion’s sake/in case someone’s interested I feel I should list the hints about the twist but SERIOUSLY, SPOILER WARNING LIKE CRAZY BEYOND THIS POINT. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK.

So the twist I’m talking about is of course Kasyan Lutovich being Kaschei the Deathless. Here’s the hints I got:

  • The one that “ruined” it for me: his land is called the Bashnya Kostei — the Tower of Bones. There’s… only one Russian character who’d rule a place like that LOL. And it’s the one who looks like this:

20180205_001136

  • That pic btw is from my book of the Marya Morevna fairytale (yes the one also in Valente’s Deathless), which I think (?) is the biggest contributor to the Kaschei found here.
  • After that, Kasyan is believably close to Kaschei for the latter to be a mangling of his “real name”.
  • Lutovich took me a while because I’m pretty sure it’s technically Lyutovich — from the Russian word ‘lyuto’/’lyutiy’ — evil/cruel/ferocious. To me it reads like a nickname, not an actual patronymic. If there’s an actual Slavic name Lyut it’s not used anymore — probably because it’s like calling your kid McEvil.
  • One of the fairytales Vasya mentions in passing — “like the fairy-tale Olga with her eagle prince” — is Marya Morevna, where Kaschei is the primary villain.
  • His beeeautiful horse — in Marya Morevna at least he has the bestest horse ever and the hero has to do a bunch of chores for Baba Yaga to get one to match him.
  • His horse stumbles in the race. I’m sure this is just coincidence but Officially confirmed by the author to not be a coincidence!! It cracked me up — his horse stumbling in the fairytale is a whole Thing and leads to a fun line from Kaschei: “Why’re you stumbling, you unsatisfied nag? Are you sensing some misfortune?”
  • …All the young girls in the area are going missing — kidnapping women being one of Kaschei’s fave pastimes — but I didn’t actually get that one until after the reveal!
  • This is after the reveal but of course Kaschei kidnaps a Marya just as in the original story. There’s some more fun playing with the fairytale in terms of Kaschei and Tamara’s backstory. Here’s an English translation, for anybody interested in puzzling out the hints for book 3!
  • (Where his death is hidden isn’t from that story though, it’s just general Kaschei folklore.)
  • Did I miss anything somebody else caught? “Horses like blades of grass” sounds really familiar to me but I can’t remember if it’s something specific or just a general Russian expression.

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