When we last saw Vasya in The Bear and the Nightingale, she had just survived the onslaught of the Bear, who wanted to bring unending death and night to Rus. Vasya’s witchy powers, combined with the might of the god of the snows, Morozko, saved Rus but doomed her father and stepmother, and now Vasya cannot endure returning to the life she once knew. Dogged by rumors that she is a witch, she decides on a dramatic change. Instead of taking Morozko’s silver as a dowry, she takes it as an investment in her travels. Along with her steed, Solovey, Vasya is ready to see the world.
But the world is not always ready for Vasya. Rus is a dangerous place, full of bandits, rapists, and kidnappers–not to mention the uneasy alliances across the political landscape. With unrest in the Mongolian horde, and boyars always vying for more power, there is more danger than ever in Rus. Vasya is not really prepared to stumble into the midst of so much chaos, but after rescuing three young girls who were kidnapped, she has little choice.
There is also the titular girl in one of Moscow’s towers, a ghost woman who weeps in the night. Vasya must untangle conspiracies both spiritual and civil, all while keeping the secrets of her gender and her abilities. With so many plot threads, you would think it might get a bit chaotic, but Katharine Arden makes a firm and clear path forward at all times. She’s exceptionally deft with the mysteries as well, feeding us breadcrumbs from each in turn, keeping us eager.
The Grand Prince of Moscow and a handsome lord named Kasyan make uneasy new allies in this fraught world; bandits who leave no trail make new enemies. There are also some familiar faces in Olya and Sasha, Vasya’s sister and monk brother (respectively), who provide more conservative counterpoints to Vasya’s rebellious desires. I was a little disappointed to also see the priest Konstantin again. He’s an excellent character, a terrifying fanatic whose righteousness tends toward evil, but he was at the heart of the previous book. I am heartsick of fanaticism, and I was not eager for more of it, especially since Vasya dealt with it extensively in the first book.
The contrast with the first book is strong, setting up a nice dichotomy between being settled and being a traveler, between a distant farm and a capital city, and also between being a girl and a boy. Vasya triumphed in the previous book by mastering her domain, both the hearth and the wild woods. (A triumph mitigated by loss, certainly, but a triumph nonetheless.) Here she is out of that familiar territory as she tries to become a traveler. She knows little of life on the road and even less of people, and her bumpkinish ways get her into trouble before long. At some points, she needs to be saved.
Far from finding that offensive, I actually think it’s rather interesting. The fact that this is called The Girl in the Tower is a perhaps another nod to fairy tales where women were imprisoned to await a savior. I think it’s nice to have something that acknowledges that a young, untrained woman in disguise will need to be helped just as much as she is able to provide help. Vasya is very real, learning and growing from painful lessons, but holding tight to her independence despite the pressures all around her.
The historical reality is heavy with violence, especially violence against women. Arden doesn’t let us look away from the sexual exploitation of poor women or the restricted circumstances of even the wealthiest women, even when her male characters shrug their shoulders at it. Vasya, able to travel back and forth between the gender divide as well as the real and spirit worlds, has to once again find her footing between the two. It is so frustrating to watch her struggle against the prejudices of her family and her people, to the point where sometimes I had to put this aside in favor of lighter things. It may not be gory or salacious, but this is still not an easy book to read in this political climate.
Once again I appreciate Arden’s fine attention to detail and meticulous research. She is clearly a Russian scholar, which creates a really rich, thrilling world in both its details and its wide strokes. Vasya’s rides through freezing forests, deep snowy plains, and the glory and stink of Moscow are a delight to follow. The whole narrative is like a jewel, bright but hard.
By the end, The Girl in the Tower is another success for what we now know will be a trilogy that will finish with The Winter of the Witch in 2018, for which I now have even higher expectations. Do not miss this glittering, dangerous world.