The Girl in the Tower
by Katherine Arden
384pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 9.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.7/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.4/5

The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden’s debut novel and the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, is a beautifully written, atmospheric, Slavic-folklore-inspired book set in a fourteenth century Rus’ in which the old spirits are beginning to fade with the rise of Christianity in the region. This volume chronicles the childhood and young adulthood of Vasya, starting with her mother’s knowledge that her next child will be a daughter very much like her own mother, a woman resembling a swan maiden who rode into Moscow astride a majestic horse one day and later wed the Grand Prince—a mysterious woman who never spoke of where she came from and was rumored to have the powers of a witch.

The Girl in the Tower begins shortly after the end of the previous novel and covers a shorter time span, primarily focusing on Vasya, her brother Sasha, and her sister Olga. After the events at the end of The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya flees her rural home with Solovey, a magical horse she befriended. The frost-demon Morozko is powerless to deter Vasya from her wish to travel—even after she nearly dies in the cold—so he instead teaches her to use a knife and advises that she disguise herself as a boy for her own safety. Vasya does as he suggests and is hailed as a hero when she rides into Moscow with some children she rescued from kidnapping bandits, but she inadvertently causes problems for Sasha and Olga when she claims to be their brother—and Sasha chooses to lie to his close friend the Grand Prince about his sister’s true identity, fearing what will happen if it is revealed that Vasilii is actually Vasilisa. To further complicate matters, Sasha and Olga question whether or not to trust their sister since they can tell her account of recent events at home is not entirely honest, as Vasya knows they would find the full truth involving spirits they neither see nor believe in to be inconceivable—and a political plot is brewing in Moscow that may only be unraveled by someone with the Sight.

This is not only my favorite book in this phenomenal trilogy but also my 2017 Book of the Year and one of the best books I’ve ever read, period. Like the first book in the series (and The Winter of the Witch, the conclusion released earlier this year), it’s a wonderful historical fantasy/fairy tale, and Katherine Arden weaves a story that feels magical and otherworldly yet realistic and true to life with its vividly drawn characters. But of the three installments, I think The Girl in the Tower is the one with the most excitement and tension, despite a slow beginning. I also particularly enjoyed the inclusion of more mythology and learning more about Vasya’s grandmother, although I can’t discuss those aspects without spoilers.

In addition to its focus on Slavic folklore and their old gods being forgotten, The Girl in the Tower is largely about family and acceptance, and the sibling bonds are particularly compelling. Both Sasha and Olga left home when Vasya was just a child—Sasha to become a monk and Olga to become a princess—and had not seen their younger sister since, until she unexpectedly arrived in Moscow masquerading as a boy. Yet all three obviously care about each other even though there’s some strain on Sasha and Olga’s relationship with their younger sister given the circumstances. They find it difficult to understand why Vasya does what she does at times, but they do want to protect her despite the potential cost to themselves.

Sasha finds Vasya easier to comprehend than Olga does, even admiring her bravery despite believing she committed sins along the way. He and Vasya are actually quite similar as free spirits that thirst for adventure, and he too defied their father when he became a monk. At first, Sasha finds it hard to accept that his sister is acting like a boy (though his mentor, the monk Sergei, gently but wisely pushes back on his sexist statements, more concerned with the fact that he’s deceiving the Grand Prince than the fact that Vasya is participating in so-called manly pursuits dressed like a boy), but he also finds their exploits thrilling. Sasha is somewhat unconventional himself and has not advanced in the Brotherhood after years of service because he prefers being a warrior and adviser to the Grand Prince to being cooped up in a monastery. But he’s celebrated for being who he is—and though Vasya is too, it’s only because people believe her to be a boy, and revealing that she’s not would be dangerous.

Olga is more politically astute and forward-thinking than her two siblings, largely due to the role she married into when she became a princess, and she is concerned about more than her own well-being: the one line she will not cross when it comes to keeping Vasya from harm is doing anything she believes will endanger her children. Given that, she worries more about the consequences if Vasya is discovered, especially any resulting from keeping the truth from the Grand Prince and his cousin, her own husband. At first, she hopes to have Vasya married as quickly as possible, but Vasya has already evaded others’ plans to see her wed and sent to a convent and is not likely to submit to such a fate. Throughout the novel, Olga also comes to realize how very much like her aunt her own daughter is—and that it will not be easy to keep either of them safe from those who despise witches, nor will either be content with a quiet life of confinement.

Vasya herself is strong-willed, often rash and prone to acting before thinking, kind, caring, generally polite (unless she’s given a reason not to be), and willing to own up to and attempt to rectify her mistakes. She is what I most loved about The Girl in the Tower, closely followed by her two siblings, her fiercely protective stallion Solovey, and Morozko. There’s a bit of romance developing between Vasya and Morozko in this book that leads to exploration of the dichotomy between love and immortality when gods are shaped by humanity, and the frost-demon appears to be unexpectedly in over his head when it comes to this particular mortal. He’s accustomed to sending humans away to do what they will, but he can’t seem to stay away from Vasya—especially if she’s in trouble.

The Girl in the Tower is an excellent novel, one I can’t imagine ever not having a place on my bookshelf. If you also like historical fantasy, fairy tales, characters who flout societal rules to carve their own paths, animal companions, books with a dash of romance, and sibling relationships, it may be one you that belongs on yours, too (although I would recommend beginning with The Bear and the Nightingale).

My Rating: 9.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Girl in the Tower

Reviews of Previous Books in the Winternight Trilogy:

  1. The Bear and the Nightingale