The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine ArdenThis is a powerful tale of the changing times between old gods and new, focused on a young woman, Vasya, who can see the old ways but is trapped within the modern world of Medieval Russia. The book starts with a compelling storytelling voice that unwinds the events in the lives of two secondary main characters, Olga and Sasha, in a mix of details and omniscient observations to delight and unnerve. Olga even offers a traditional Russian fairytale that resonates with the unfolding story of the Winter King and Vasya’s sort of patron.

Once Vasya’s part begins, the narrator largely vanishes in favor of a more immediate view through the perspective of each scene. However, it returns at times as a cinematic over voice offering a broader perspective not available to Vasya because of her sheltered upbringing. For example, you see this when she approaches a small town and believes it to be Moscow in all that city’s finery.

The narrative voice is not the only structural oddity as the timeline starts with Olga and Sasha in the present, then jumps back to when Vasya’s journey began after the end of The Bear and the Nightingale. However, the choices made for the tale work by drawing the reader into a rather straightforward story then layering on complications and a larger cast of influential characters until it lives up to its Russian setting.

The narrative becoming more like what is expected of modern novels with Vasya is funny, though, because Vasya is everything but traditional or expected. Still, the distinction of the personal perspective when the reader is used to a more distant one makes her feel very real despite how she rides a magic horse and consorts with frost demons.

This is appropriate because Vasya is very real. She never looks at her circumstances and considers them setting her apart from her sisters and brothers. The rules and constrictions placed on a young woman of her status sit uneasy on her shoulders, and she’s willing to do anything to shed them, but at the same time, she rarely considers the cost, not in a self-absorbed way but because she cannot imagine what is true for most people as being mandated.

Vasya is the hero of the story, but also sometimes the villain or trickster. She can’t fit in even if she wants to because the twisted priest Konstantin from the first book is still spilling his poison, though he’s the least of those set against her. At the same time, her efforts, whether for others or herself, have very real, sometimes fatal, consequences. Vasya bears these burdens heavily.

Her story is no simple farmer boy turned savior as in the fairytales, though she bears some resemblance to that role, which both makes the book stronger and her path harder. She tries to make the right choices, but what is right for her can be dangerous as well and has costs she cannot foresee. Vasya acts out of emotion and in the moment, but her ties to the immortal and powerful Winter King, along with her ability to see the fae, draws her into an ancient fight that threatens to take all of Rus down. As in the first book, she does not wake this bear, but she’s driven to force it back into its den anyway.

Vasya has a good heart and a powerful love for her family and those in need. This makes her vulnerable, especially since she has a legacy she knows only in story, with the significance stripped away so nothing is left to guide her to the real meaning. Her abilities, along with her unseemly behavior, make many choose to condemn her.

While Vasya offers much to love, there is also Sasha, the warrior monk and her brother, who has given himself to the new world. Like Vasya, he is trying to protect those unable to shelter themselves, and to do so within the rules of his world. But, he has some wise mentors who can see the flaws in this new world and who open his eyes to the possibility that sometimes what is declared wrong might just be the only good choice.

Olga, Vasya’s older sister, has gone farther even than Sasha in embracing her role as a princess of the Russian court. She finds ways to make it palatable because she has no choice. Even so, she bears within her a powerful love that can overcome even the strictest of propriety.

I cannot fail to mention the Winter King in more detail. A frost demon responsible for collecting the dead, he struggles to survive in a changing world. His choice of Vasya as his connection to the mortal life is both a victory and the worst choice of all. Instead of offering peace, she carves her own path and triggers an unsustainable passion.

There’s a grand villain or two offered up as well, and with good enough seeding that I developed suspicions, which later came to be true, but I was not able to guess at the whole and so didn’t find the story predictable. This includes the final villain, who turns out to be both less than I suspected and so much more than he appeared, with a complex story of his own.

These are only a few of the characters I met on this journey, and these glimpses should show them to be deep and complicated. Arrogance, passion, need, and trust all play a hand in this drama to good effect. I lived in the tale with them, feeling their pain as well as their joy. The story brought me to tears at least twice. This is prophecy done right where even knowing the future means nothing, and a strong will can overturn the grandest of schemes if determined enough, but no victory comes without cost.

P.S. I received this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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