I must have read The Girl in the Tower, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale, in a daze because when I came back to it recently, it was as though I had never read it at all. That’s not always a bad thing, though, since this second read-through was full of suspense, adventure, and the same magic that you can expect from a Katherine Arden novel. Is it an improvement on the first book, as every sequel should be?
Vasya has fled her village since her father was killed. She finds herself battling hunger, cold, and the danger of simply being female wherever she goes. When she finally runs into her brother-turned-monk Sasha, who is traveling with the Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, she becomes a boy to protect herself. However, something dangerous and magical is brewing in Moscow, where Vasy’s sister, Olga, is now a princess. In order to stop it, though, Vasya’s going to take some great risks that will impact her, her surviving family, and the royals of Moscow.
Although Vasya is the most interesting character in this cast, there are still plenty of engaging people around her. Konstantin returns with his same old obsessions, Sasha has become a wizened and respected monk, and Olga is now a princess with a whole regiment of maids and children of her own. The story takes turns focusing on each of these characters, giving more life and flavor to this fantastical tale.
But again, Vasya’s fantastical adventures are the highlight, with her continual encounters with the enigmatic frost demon Morozko and her magical abilities getting her into trouble.
Vasya has to make more tough choices throughout this story, continuing to prove her humanity and imperfectness. It’s so easy to write a strong female character whose beauty and brains wows everyone around them, but Vasya is the opposite. She is still ridiculed for her imperfect looks and simply struggles because of her femininity. Don’t forget that this is medieval Russia; almost everything Vasya does could get her labeled as a witch.
To sum up, Vasya never stops being vulnerable. She breaks down and cries every so often, no matter how strong she tries to be. And again, contemporary fantasy could use more fallible heroines like her.
Vasya finally meets other people who share her abilities, and her relationship with Morozko deepens. It’s nice to see Vasya finally get herself some allies, but I get the feeling not all of them will make it through the third and final book.
All in all, this is a pretty good middle chapter to this trilogy. I love that we get to see the wild world beyond Vasya’s village, and Vasya continues to be one of the most refreshing fantasy heroines of recent years.