The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden picks up immediately after The Bear and The Nightingale. Knowing she will never enter a convent nor be married off unwillingly, Vasya leaves her home to settle the people there who fear she is a witch. Too much has happened, and it’s best if she leaves. She is not without struggles. Her horse, Solovey, a gift from the frost demon, can speak into Vasya’s mind and understand humans, but is her only companion. Yet, even a determined mortal young woman cannot survive in the frozen landscape of what is now Russia without help.
Vasya isn’t the only one who needs assistance. Bandits ravage the area, burning down villages and kidnapping little girls. In Moscow, Vasya’s brother, the monk Alexsandr, serves unusually as advisor to the Grand Prince of Moscow. Their closeness is almost brotherly. And when a strange minor prince rides up requesting help after his village was burned down, the monk and Grand Prince gather men to find and destroy the bandits.
Meanwhile, Vasya discovers some of the missing girls held captive by the bandits in their most recent raid and makes a daring and clever attempt to rescue them. She succeeds, and when Vasya takes the girls to the nearest holding, it’s no surprise that she runs into her brother and the Grand Prince looking for the same bandits. While moderns readers may be thinking, “You go, girl!” keep in mind that the setting is long ago, before Russia is actually a country and instead maintained by lords and princes of smaller landholdings. Vasya shouldn’t be saving children; she shouldn’t even be on a horse. Knowing the consequences, Vasya hides her hair and impersonates a boy, much to the annoyance of her brother, who finds his sister’s lie blasphemous.
Once again, Katherine Arden crosses genre lines beautifully. We’re still in fairy tale territory, but we also get a ghost story and a mystery, for no one knows who these bandits are or who controls them. More so than The Bear and The Nightingale, this second book in the trilogy reads more feminist. You’re rooting for Vasya in her boy disguise and want everyone to leave her alone about gender and instead praise her deeds and skills.
When the group under the Grand Prince of Moscow return to the city, Vasya is able to see her sister Olga for the first time in years. Olga is also peeved that a girl should compromise her dignity such as Vasya is doing. Both siblings want Vasya to leave as a boy and return as a maiden to be held in the towers with other women, never to see or interact with men until married. But a chilling part of the novel, one Arden writes beautifully, challenges gender norms:
You are a monk. I don’t see you in a monastery, Brother Aleksandr. Shouldn’t you be growing a garden, chanting, praying without pause? Instead you are here, the nearest adviser of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Why you, brother? Why you and not I?
Arden points out the hypocrisy of gender roles in this ancient setting — Vasya’s brother is a monk who doesn’t behave like one, isn’t doing what is expected of him, but he gets away with it because he’s male. Yet Vasya can (and does) advise the Grand Prince during her time in the city with just as much wisdom as her sibling. Even though the group killed some bandits, there’s clearly a foul plot still going on with a mysterious leader.
While there’s a bit of an unconventional love story lurking in the background, it’s not the focus of The Girl in the Tower. Each genre is used to effect, making me eager to see how different threads — the mystery, the ghost story, the love story, the historical aspect — play out. And, annoyingly Brother Konstantine comes back from the book, so you have to wonder what havoc he’s going to wreak. An excellent second novel in the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden.