Sunday, 27 January 2019
#CBR11 Book 3: "The Girl in the Tower" by Katherine Arden
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler warning! This is book 2 in a trilogy, and the story pretty much follows on directly from the ending of the previous book. This book, while very good, doesn't really stand on its own, you would do much better to start at the beginning, with The Bear and the Nightingale.
There are roving gangs of bandits travelling the countryside around Moscow, pillaging and burning the villages and abducting young girls. Prince Dimitri sends his cousin, brother Alexandr, affectionately known to his family as Sasha, to investigate. Sasha has been out travelling the land, and brings an injured and exhausted priest he found on his travels to his sister Olga's household for tending. Neither of them know about Father Konstantin's connection to their family, and are therefore shocked when the priest tells them of the strange events surrounding their father's death and their sister Vasya's disappearance and likely demise.
As Sasha believes his sister to be dead, he's certainly not expecting to find her riding hell for leather, pursued by bandits, disguised as a boy, with three young girls clinging to her for dear life. Reunited at the monastery where Sasha and Dimitri spent part of, where the men are resupplying while out searching for traces of the bandits, Sasha is forced to lie to his cousin about Vasya's identity, presenting her as his younger brother Vasily. As they return to Moscow, Olga has no choice but to support Vasya's deception either, as their sister has chosen to flout all the conventions of society. In a world where women either marry and get locked up in terems, or go to convents (and get locked up there), Vasya's refusal to conform to the gender norms is unacceptable and eventually gets her (and her family) into more trouble.
It will come as no surprise to any reader that our brave and non-conforming heroine's deceptions are eventually revealed (in a very public and rather breathtaking scene). As well as the jealous malice of Father Konstantin, she's up against a new antagonist in this book. The man behind the raids on the villages is eventually revealed, and he has an unexpected connection to Vasya's family and ambitions that could cause problems for Prince Dimitri, Sasha, Olya, as well as Vasya herself.
Vasya's sister Olga was a supporting character for a while in the first book, but then disappeared out of the story as she was married off to a Prince in Moscow. Here we get to see much more of her life, as the head of a noble household in Moscow. We also get to spend a lot more time with Sasha, Vasya's beloved older brother, now a famous warrior monk and the right hand adviser of his cousin, Prince Dimitri of Moscow. Obviously Sasha is massively uncomfortable having to lie to his cousin and best friend about Vasya, but his younger sister's behaviour is so at odds with everything expected and accepted of women in that time that he doesn't really have a choice. Women don't dress up as boys and run away from home. Women don't infiltrate bandit camps and rescue kidnapped girls. Women don't pretend to be folk heroes, go to parties and accept challenges for public horse races.
In a lot of cases, the second book in a trilogy is a bridging book, with not much actually happening. That is absolutely not the case here. Interestingly, while Vasya is mostly the focus of the first book (certainly after the first half that tells of her backstory), it's clear that her family are just as important to the overall series, especially Sasha, Olya and Olga's little daughter Marya, who like her aunt can see the nature spirits, although their presence is much more muted in the city than in the woods of Vasya's old home. We also discover more about Vasya's ancestry, and find out what happened to her grandmother, as well as why Morozko, the winter king, is so drawn to her.
While he's not a big part of the story, as in the first one, Morozko's presence is felt and the scenes between him and Vasya are probably the best in the book. I was initially displeased to see Father Konstantin reappearing in the story, but trust that Ms. Arden knows what she's doing.
I love how Arden makes us both sympathise with Vasya, who not unreasonably doesn't want to become a wife and mother, a nun or just die, but rather forge her own path and become an adventurer and a warrior, yet we also feel for her sister and brother and worry about the consequences of her rash actions. Part of what makes me love these books so much is the vivid descriptions of the setting. When Vasya is riding alone through the forest, you feel the cold settling in your bones. You can almost see and feel the bustle of the closed off women's quarters of the terem and the raucous, smelly gatherings of the Prince's palace. As a historian, who specialised in European medieval history, getting all these details about Russian society and folklore, as well as the gripping and exciting main story is great.
The Bear and the Nightingale ended up being one of my favourite reads of 2017. I waited to read this until I knew the third book was already out, as I was pretty sure I would want to dive into the next book right away after finishing this one, and I was not wrong. These are such great fantasy books, with a fascinating cast of characters. Now that the trilogy is completed, there is no excuse not to start the series.
Judging a book by its cover: The cover on this book is so incredibly lovely, and the image fits nicely with the story within, without spoiling anything. I don't know who the cover artist is, but they've knocked it out of the park.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.