New Release Review: The Girl in the Tower

Katherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower (2017)

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favorite books of 2017, and just shy of one year later author Katherine Arden has produced a sequel — greatly pleasing those of us who are weary of waiting years for a follow-up book. And I’m glad to say that The Girl in the Tower is a worthy successor, showing no signs of a sophomore slump. A third book is already slated for August of 2018, which should bring the trilogy to a rousing conclusion.

Girl is a tauter and leaner book than Bear, with a more streamlined plot and fewer POV switches, but still with the atmospheric Russian setting steeped in both history and folklore that so enchanted me in the first book. What was built up over many chapters is now taken for granted in this second volume, with few new elements added, but characters and themes are extended and deepened. New readers will definitely want to start with book one, and not jump into the middle of the story, as they would thus miss half the pleasure of entering into Arden’s half-realistic, half-mythological world. (And you might want to go get that book right now before reading the rest of this review, to avoid spoilers. If you like that one, I’m sure you’ll want to continue straight on to the next.)

On the run from her remote village, where she’s been branded as a witch by a malicious priest, Vasya encounters her long-lost brother Sasha and sister Olya and enters into a perilous deception that brings her into a treacherous world of shifting alliances. As she journeys to Moscow, powerful but vulnerable heart of her people’s land, she must try to reconcile the old powers that still speak to her with the demands and prejudices of this bewildering new world. An explosive climax brings secrets to light and sets the stage for further journeys.

I was especially happy that Vasya got to be reunited with her siblings, who disappeared from the action somewhat abruptly in the first book. Arden fruitfully explores the tensions between them, as well as Vasya’s struggle to express herself in a world that represses and limits female power. Vasya’s relationship with the frost demon Morozko is also developed into a poignant Beauty-and-the-Beast story arc that yet resists falling into mere stereotype. And a wonderful new character is introduced in Vasya’s niece, who, it seems, will play an even more important role in the third book.

I’m definitely looking forward to that one, and glad that we won’t have a terribly long wait. In the meantime, if you enjoy the intersection of historical fiction and fantasy, this series may prove a perfect winter treat for you.


New Release Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)

I opened The Bear and the Nightingale with great anticipation and not a little trepidation; since the trend for fairy-tale fiction exploded some years ago, there have been some brilliant entries in the genre and some derivative duds. Katherine Arden’s debut novel looked promising, with its half-magical, half-historical Russian setting and an enticing cover, but what looks good doesn’t always turn out to be so in the reading.

Fortunately, from the first pages I was entranced, as Arden quickly led me into a truly wonder-full world, in which the time-honored motif of the mistreated stepdaughter gains new strength and richness through her multi-layered telling. There’s so much to discover and enjoy that I’d like to encourage you to just pick it up and explore it for yourself … but to name a few favorite aspects, I especially appreciated how elements of folklore and myth were treated in a way that brought them to life for modern readers, while feeling both genuinely atmospheric and psychologically true. At the same time, the historical setting — a medieval land of wooden huts, wandering monks and tribal machinations — is economically but convincingly developed through telling details of life and language.

Toward the end, I found that Arden’s storytelling weakened a bit. The villains became more one-sided and less interesting, and the battles with monsters started to feel too much like a video-game slugfest for my personal taste. I’m hoping that in the sequels (and yes! there will be sequels!) she’ll carry the skill she shows so amply in the buildup of this story through to the very last pages. I will definitely be watching for her next effort with great interest, and confidence that this time my expectations will be rewarded.