Day of the Witch: A Review of The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden

Vasilia Petrovna is a witch.  She sees spirits where others see only shadows.  She talks to her horse, and understands his responses.  She has met Morozko, the Winter king and spirit of death, and Medved, the Bear and the Eater.  She remembers the old ways, the chyerti, even as the Russia around her steadily embraces Christianity.  She is wild and free while other women are trapped in marriage or convents.  Vasya is the heroine of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy and one of several girls in towers in The Girl in the Tower, part two of Arden’s fairy tale inspired trilogy.  At the end of the first novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya saved her village and helped seal away Medved, the Bear.  Because of both her abilities and personality, Vasya has been forced from home and branded a witch.

The Girl in the Tower opens with Vasya’s decision to leave home.  She is seventeen years old.  Her only companion at the start is Solovey, her horse.  Together, they plan on seeing the world and remaining free.  For safety, Vasya disguises herself as a boy, Vasilii Petrovich, on the advice of a powerful spirit, Morozko.  Told to stay away from civilization lest she if found out, Vasya cannot help herself and enters the first larger town she comes across.  Not a city by any means, it is still the largest thing Vasya has ever seen and she immediately loses herself in the wonder.  Things go wrong immediately, and she is chased out, nearly freezing to death during her escape.  This singular event sets the tone for the entire novel and leads to Vasya playing hero by rescuing captured girls from some bandits.  Through her heroics, she meets her older brother, Sasha, for the first time in years and is introduced to Dmitri, the Grand Prince of Moscow.  Forced to lie about her gender, Vasya is quickly swept up in the glory and emotion, forgetting the danger of being a free woman in fourteenth century Russia.

The Girl in the Tower features both new characters and old, and characters with whom we spent little time with in The Bear and the Nightingale finds themselves at the center of attention.  Always with Vasya is Solovey, the magic horse.  The titular nightingale from the first novel, Solovey is stronger, faster, and smarter than all other horses.  Vasya understands the language of horses, and so is able to speak freely with Solovey.  He is her best friend and deadliest weapon, and their bond only strengthens as the story progresses.  Solovey is more than just a sidekick or animal companion, he is a protagonist in his own right.  Another major focus is Sasha, Vasya’s older brother who left home years before to join a monastery.  Not happy sitting still, Sasha is a warrior monk.  He, like his other siblings, is also a cousin of the Grand Prince of Moscow, and is the best friend and advisor to Dmitri.  Sasha loves his sister, but does not understand her in any way.  Forced to lie for her to protect her, the book spends almost as much time in his point-of-view as it does with Vasya.

The Girl in the Tower is also the first time we see Vasya’s older sister, Olga, since early in the first novel.  Olga was married to the Prince of Serpukhov as part of a political deal in the first novel, and has since grown accustom to her role in the nobility.  One of the possible girls in the tower, she has adapted to her royal confinement and embodies one of the fates which awaits Vasya; marriage.  Her daughter, Marya, or Masha, takes completely after her aunt Vasya.  She is wild and free-spirited, never sitting still or obeying manners.  She can also see the spirits as Vasya does, although she does not understand what she sees until Vasya’s arrival.  Last of the major characters is Dmitri himself.  Shrewd, smart, brash, and friendly, Dmitri is the Grand Prince of Moscow.  He grew up instilled with an understanding of politics and knows how the game is played.  Dmitri does not accept lies or any amount of betrayal, and causes most of the tension in the first half of the story as Vasya and Sasha must lie about her identity to keep her safe.  Dmitri also dreams of a unified Russia, free from the Golden Horde which controlled most of Asia and parts of Europe at the time.

The Girl in the Tower feels like a fairy tale, although not the ones with happy endings.  This is a fairy tale from the era of the Brothers Grimm, when death was common and not everyone met a happy ending.  There is a permeating darkness in this novel, which only grows in strength as the story continues, continuing a trend from The Bear and the Nightingale.  Countless girls are captured before the start of the novel and their villages burned.  Of the captured, only three are rescued.  There is death, threats of violence, the worry of rape, and an underlying tension among the spirits that Vasya does not understand.  This is all underscored by the return of Konstantin, a fallen priest who became obsessed with Vasya and served the Bear thinking he was God.  Konstantin is not central to the story, but he brings an unmatched maliciousness and represents the worst of humanity.  Throughout the novel, Vasya is trying to mold herself in to the hero from fairy tales, but that is not the way of the world.

In the middle of this darkness, there is also a love story, albeit a doomed story.  In The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya is given a jewel, a gift from the Winter King Morozko himself.  Through it, he ties himself to her and ensures he will not be forgotten.  This power has an unintended side effect and Morozko finds himself becoming more human, feeling emotions a spirit is not supposed to feel.  He is the master of death, and yet he has never felt more alive.  He is supposed to be an impartial observer, ferrying deceased souls to the afterlife.  But he finds himself falling more and more in love with Vasya.  He cannot help but interfere and protect her when he can.  In turn, Vasya also finds herself drawn to him.  She never expresses romantic interest with any other characters in the novel, but does know how to handle Morozko’s burgeoning affection.  These are two people from very different worlds who do not completely understand one another, nor do they understand their love.  That lack of understanding leads to a lack of expression as the wrong words are always said the wrong feelings acted upon.

The Girl in the Tower is the second novel in a trilogy, which means it has also several missions to accomplish.  It has to provide a villain one-time villain who has a connection to the largest story at hand, but does not interfere with the eventual villain of book three.  Plot points must be set up for the third novel as well, which necessitates some events to happen without a resolution.  Lastly, the heroes must be brought to a low point and, even if the book ends with them triumphant, not everything can be solved.  The immediate threat may be over, but the danger still lurks.  The Girl in the Tower accomplishes those missions while never feeling rote or like it is working off a check list.  This is a splendid second chapter to Vasya’s story, and leaves us wanting to see the resolution.  Vasya only has one more story to tell.

The Girl in the Tower can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 7 days

Next on the List: The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden

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