Winternight trilogy

REVIEW: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower is the second book in the Winternight trilogy so there may be vague spoilers for the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, in this review.

Vasya has left her village and sets out to be free and discover the wide world. Soon though she encounters the Grand Prince of Moscow and his men, which includes her older brother Sasha, a monk, as they’re on the trial of the rumoured bandits that roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping young girls. Being disguised as a boy, Vasya soon proves herself in battle and gets the respect of the Prince and Sasha reluctantly keeps her secret though danger lurks in Moscow as there are power struggles and it might not just be human but fantastical dangers the city faces as well.

While there is still fantastical elements in The Girl in the Tower with Vasya’s talking horse and the various creatures from folklore Vasya encounters in different peoples homes, the political machinations really takes the forefront in this book compared to the first. Vasya is still headstrong and brave but she is unused to the way people act in court and the double meanings and alliances that can form. Plus, as she’s pretending to be her sibling’s younger brother, there’s always a sense of danger as in this world women should not act as Vasya does. It’s a patriarchal society and women and girls are judged by their looks and presumed virtue and nothing more, Vasya is opinionated and smart and finds a freedom in pretending to be a boy as well as the danger.

The sibling relationships in The Girl in the Tower are really interesting. Vasya is in her late teens and her older brother and sister, Sasha and Olga, are in their twenties and haven’t seen her for at least ten years. Both younger and older siblings struggle to understand and connect with the version of their sibling that’s in front of them when they’re so different to who they remember. It’s an interesting dynamic as Sasha and Olga aren’t who Vasya remembers from her childhood but equally, Vasya perplexes them both as she refuses to be confined and do what is expected of a young woman of her age – marry a man and bear children, or join a convent. Vasya’s wildness grates against Sasha and Olga’s propriety and their understanding of the political and social standings they have in Moscow clashes with her dreams.

The connection Vasya has with Morozko, the Winter King or Frost Demon, continues to be really intriguing. It has the start of romance but at the same time there’s a lot of half truths between them, and how can an immortal demon love a mortal girl without it being the undoing of either of them?

Unlike The Bear and the Nightingale where the first half was slower and more character-driven and then things picked up in the second half, The Girl in the Tower has a lot more action throughout. Though the political plotting can drag a little bit in the middle and there’s a thread of tension through most of the book because you’re waiting to see if/when Vasya’s deception is discovered and if it is, just how bad the consequences will be. The writing in The Girl in the Tower is still excellent though and even odd moments or throwaway lines are purposeful as everything builds to a thrilling ending.

I’m both excited and kind of nervous about what the third and final book of this trilogy will bring. There are prophesies still to be fulfilled for Vasya and for other characters, so The Girl in the Tower has done that wonderful thing of leaving some mysteries and plot threads hanging. Hopefully everything will wrap up nicely as at the moment it looks like The Winter of the Witch has the potential to be an epic conclusion. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…

I loved this book. Honestly, I was a bit hesitant to begin with as it’s the first book in a trilogy that has so much hype but the writing and atmosphere pulled me in really quickly. The first part is a lot slower paced than I was expecting but it’s never not interesting and all of the family dynamics and the background political rumblings it sets up come into play later on. Spending the time with the characters and their relationships to begin with allowed them time to grow and really deepen. Vasya’s relationship with her older brother Alyosha (who is closest to her in age) was especially great and relatable as while he didn’t necessarily believe in the stories and magic, he believed in his sister.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in a medieval Russia where the folktales, magic and old religions are real but most people treat them as superstitions. Vasya though, has always been able to see the creatures and spirits that protect her home and the surrounding countryside while others could not. She talks to them and they talk back and as she grows older, they teach her things while she learns to keep what she can see and sense a secret because the villagers may call her a witch.

I really liked how the old religions came into conflict with the “new” religion when Konstantin, a Christian priest, arrives and starts to push the word of God. He is a character I loved to hate. Though there was the odd moment where he was so pathetic that he became almost sympathetic, he was so frustratingly righteous and stubborn that I relished in every moment where things did not go his way. He’s almost unwanted obsession with Vasya as she becomes a young woman was uncomfortable at times and their verbal sparring battles just made me like Vaya more.

Vasya is a wonderful character. The Bear and the Nightingale follows her from her birth until she is a teenager and you see from the outset, she’s been a wild child who doesn’t often do what’s expected of a girl her age. This does make her come into conflict with her family, especially her father, who wants to protect her, and her stepmother, who can’t stand her actions most of the time. Vasya can make impulsive decisions but she’s very loyal and caring and as she respects the creatures and guardians from tales, she can tell when bad things are about to happen and do her best to prepare her family for it.

The writing in The Bear and the Nightingale is excellent and often painted a vivid picture of the cold, harsh world Vasya grows up in and all the creatures are larger than life. I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long and while I’m not usually a seasonal mood reader, I’m glad I picked it up during winter when it’s cold and dark and frosty as it really added to the reading experience.

I really enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so enthralled by a story and I’m looking forward to continuing on with the trilogy. 5/5.