Every time you take one path, you must live with the memory of the other: of a life left unchosen. Decide as seems best, one course or the other; each way will have its bitter with its sweet.
Last winter, I read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, a lyrical novel-length fairy tale set in medieval Russia. With its chilling descriptions of harsh cold and deep Russian winters, it was a perfect thing to read on freezing January nights. The Girl in the Tower continues the story of Bear’s protagonist, Vasya. There is no sophomore slump or middle-book problem here; I loved this book as much as I loved the first. The author retains the lyrical style present in the first book, but does not simply repeat its plot or main conflict, instead presenting a new, tense situation for Vasya to navigate.
Western fairy tales typically involve a beautiful maiden of humble origins marrying a handsome prince and living happily ever after. In medieval Russia, that is the goal of every Russian lady: to marry well and make babies. If marriage is not agreeable, they are resigned to a life in a convent.
Vasya, however, has no interest in becoming some man’s broodmare and being locked away in a castle or convent for the rest of her life. The Girl in the Tower is largely about Vasya’s struggle for freedom against the gender restrictions of her time. But with pagan spirits, witches, sorcery, ghosts, a frost demon psychopomp, and a really cool horsey.
You don’t have to be a hardcore fantasy fan to appreciate this series. It’s got plenty of stuff for fans of more general historical fiction: (1) a young girl fighting against the (very) limited roles for females in this medieval society (2) rural pagan beliefs against the spreading influence of Christianity (3) and a more-or-less accurate picture of medieval Russian culture. If those sorts of things interest you and you can tolerate some supernatural elements, you might enjoy this novel.
You do not HAVE to read Bear and the Nightingale before you read this, but I highly recommend it. It is not like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy which is one big story split up into 3 books. Each of the books in this series has a clearly defined, independent conflict and resolution. However, a lot of the worldbuilding and characters are introduced in Bear, so readers may be a bit lost if they just dive into this book without reading Bear first. I would liken it to trying to watch The Empire Strikes Back without first seeing A New Hope.
If you read Bear but did not care for it, I would still recommend that you give this book a try. Vasya is a little older, the conflicts are a little different, and Arden has matured a little bit as a writer. Fans of Mulan should definitely give this book a try as it is basically…well…Mulan. Kinda.
Although I refer to this book as a fairy tale, I should make it clear that it’s for mature audiences. There is violence, sexual violence, threats of sexual violence, and other things that are not really suited for young kids.
My rating: 5 stars