Spoiler alert: The Bear and the Nightingale was one of the best new books I read in 2017, period, let alone best new fantasy. Written by Katherine Arden, Nightingale takes place in a fantastical medieval Russia, where house demons are real and frost kings rule the land. Our protagonist, Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna, is a young girl who has the ability to see these demons around her, and so she befriends them, knowing that they are benevolent creatures who help keep the house and farm running smoothly. She also meets Morozko, the winter king of legend and childhood fairytale, and… well, if you want their whole backstory, you should absolutely read Nightingale, hint hint.
The Girl in the Tower is the next installment of Vasya’s adventures as she rides across the frozen Russian wilderness on her trusted horse, Solovey. On the way she reunites with her older brother Sasha, who is now a monk – albeit a bit of a warrior monk. Sasha has been helping the Grand Prince of Moscow — their cousin, Dmitrii — track down a group of bandits that have been burning and destroying villages and stealing the girl children away into the night, all without leaving a trace of them behind. Vasya, determined to save these children and catch the bandits, joins Sasha and Dmitrii’s men in an effort to help out – all while disguised as a boy. The result? A white-knuckle adventure full of magic and danger.
While it took a little time for the pace to pick up, Tower was an absolutely fun ride; I could hardly put the book down once it started going heavy on the action. Vasya is as compelling and strong a heroine as ever, and despite the trauma she survived in the first book, she’s still determined to forge her own path and live independently, taking to horseback across the wintry motherland in search of adventure. After all, she still fears being locked in a convent or forced to marry – the usual fate of Russian girls – and so she continues to seek something more.
That ‘something more,’ of course, is never exactly what she expects it to be – because what kind of a story would we have if everything worked out perfectly? Morozko is back, as bewildering and mysterious as ever, and the development of their alliance really gets an extra boost forward in Tower. I’m a sucker for a good mortal/immortal team-up/potential romance, and Vasya and Morozko really stole the show here.
Another returning face that really puts a damper on her quest for independence is Father Konstantin, who’s in quite a different place from where we last saw him in Nightingale. Though not a central figure, the memory of the havoc he brought to Vasya and her small village still weaves it tendrils throughout the story. It’s hard to escape the aftermath of what happened, and Vasya of course is not prone to forgetting or forgiveness.
It’s this mix of returning characters and new faces – as well as old faces we haven’t seen in quite a long time – that make Tower all the more enticing. What does Konstantin’s presence mean for Vasya? Will Vasya ever tell her siblings the truth about Morozko and what happened back home? Just who is this mysterious newcomer, Kasyan Lutovich? What’s Morozko’s endgame in all of this, and why can’t he seem to stay away from Vasya? There’s a thick shroud of mystery over much of the story, and Arden does a great job of making you want to keep reading to figure it all out.
Speaking of things Arden does a great job with: the setting and description. Tower is rich with detail that places you squarely in the middle of medieval Russia in winter. You feel the biting cold, the persistent hunger and desperation to survive, the elements working against you. You can feel the itchiness and scratchiness of the clothing the characters wear; you can feel the fur that lines their coats and hats. For fantasy especially, it’s imperative that I can feel the imagined world as clearly as I can feel reality, and Arden’s writing makes that both easy and enjoyable. It almost makes me want to really be there (but not really, because I can barely handle Manhattan winters, let alone Russian ones).
The Girl in the Tower is a thrilling and seamless continuation of Vasya’s story from where it left off in The Bear and the Nightingale. For anyone looking for a little taste of Russian folklore in their fantasy, or anyone looking for something new and vibrant, I absolutely recommend both titles. As this series is called the Winternight trilogy, it’s expected there will be one final installment after this, and you can bet I’ll be waiting for it with bated breath.
5 out of 5 stars
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