Feminist Fairy Tale: A Review of The Girl in the Tower

The Girl in the Tower (2018)
Written by: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 346 (Hardcover)
Series: Winternight Trilogy Book #2
Publisher: Del Rey

Why I Chose It: I picked the first book in the Winternight trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, as my favorite speculative book of 2017, so of course I had to read the second book. I was eager to return to the wintry world of medieval Russia and to learn what happens to Vasya, the feisty, feminist heroine that I loved in the first book.

The premise:

A remarkable young woman blazes her own trail, from the backwoods of Russia to the court of Moscow, in the exhilarating sequel to Katherine Arden’s bestselling debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale.

Katherine Arden’s enchanting first novel introduced readers to an irresistible heroine. Vasilisa (Vasya) has grown up at the edge of a Russian wilderness, where snowdrifts reach the eaves of her family’s wooden house and there is truth in the fairy tales told around the fire. Vasilisa’s gift for seeing what others do not won her the attention of Morozko — Frost, the winter demon from the stories — and together they saved her people from destruction. But Frost’s aid comes at a cost, and her people have condemned her as a witch.

Now Vasilisa faces an impossible choice. Driven from her home by frightened villagers, the only options left for her are marriage or the convent. She cannot bring herself to accept either fate and instead chooses adventure, dressing herself as a boy and setting off astride her magnificent stallion Solovey.

But after Vasilisa prevails in a skirmish with bandits, everything changes. The Grand Prince of Moscow anoints her a hero for her exploits, and she is reunited with her beloved sister and brother, who are now part of the Grand Prince’s inner circle. She dares not reveal to the court that she is a girl, for if her deception were discovered it would have terrible consequences for herself and her family. Before she can untangle herself from Moscow’s intrigues — and as Frost provides counsel that may or may not be trustworthy — she will also confront an even graver threat lying in wait for all of Moscow itself.

Spoilers Ahead.

Discussion: I didn’t even realize that The Bear and the Nightingale was the first book in a trilogy until I looked it up on Amazon when I was writing my review. Nothing on the cover or in the premise mentions it. The ending of the book felt final to me. Vasya has saved Lesnaya Zemlya (her village), vanquished the arrogant priest who led the people astray, and changed Morozko, the winter king, from her enemy to a friend. I wasn’t sure that there was a story to continue. The Girl in the Tower reunites Vasya with Sasha and Olga, her older brother and sister who left Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow when Vasya was a little girl. I was glad to see these strong characters again. Vasya learns that her niece, Marya, is like her and can see the chyerti (spirits). This book is more action-orientated than The Bear and the Nightingale, and I did miss the slower pace of the first book because it allowed for more interesting tidbits about Russian culture. However, the new enemies and continuing challenges that Vasya faces held my attention.

Arden has a lovely, vivid writing style and does an excellent job of transporting the reader to a far-distant time and place. Vasya is a simple country girl from the remote wilderness, and Arden makes you feel her shock at the grandeur of Moscow. The first time Vasya sees a cathedral, she thinks, “it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. The scale alone awed her, the smell of incense…the gold-clad iconostasis, the painted walls, the silver starts in the blue on the vault of the ceiling…the multitude of voices…” (pg 224). I became so absorbed in Vasya’s world that when I stopped reading, I was disorientated to find that I was not in medieval Russia.

My favorite part of this book is the odd romance between Morozko, who is death as well as the winter king, and Vasya. As much as Vasya’s family genuinely loves her, they find her strange and sometimes suspect that she is a witch. Morozko offers her an understanding that other humans cannot. Morozko saves her life several times, but Vasya has agency in the relationship — she chooses not to heed his warnings of danger and stay in Moscow to help her family. He tells Vasya that the love of maidens for monsters never dies, but he did not expect that her love would make him more human. Even though Morozko says that he cannot be both immortal and alive, I find myself desperately hoping that he is not truly gone from the story.

The central conflict is Vasya’s struggle to be a woman and herself in a time when women were only wives or nuns. What Vasya wants is to take to the road on her magical stallion, Solovey, and see the world. When Vasya is dressing as a boy, she tells the girls she saves from the bandits, “We are not prizes, after all” (p.151), but that isn’t really the truth. She is shocked to learn that women in Moscow have even less freedom that she was accustomed to in Lesnaya Zemlya. Vasya takes her niece riding through the city, and her sister is furious because highborn women live and die in their towers. No matter how many times Vasya saves the day and proves that she as brave and clever as any man, everyone who loves her tries to force her into marriage or the convent. Even Morozko accuses her of being childish and tells her that no one, not even princes, gets what they want. An immortal death-god, who understands that Vasya sees the chyerti and speaks to horses, cannot conceive of a world in which a woman does as she pleases.

In conclusion: As soon as I finished The Girl in the Tower, I thought to myself, “I should have read this book more slowly, so it would have lasted longer.” Arden’s books are ideal for people who aren’t normally into speculative fiction because the magical and supernatural elements are well-blended into a charming story with wonderful characters. Vasya’s battle to lead a life of her own choosing in a society that forces women into narrowly defined roles is (rather depressingly) still relatable today. I can’t wait to find out how this story ends and thankfully, I don’t have to wait long because the final book in the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, is scheduled for release in August 2018.



  • Shara White February 3, 2018 at 7:43 am

    Have you ever read Kim Wilkins’ Veil of Gold. The original hardcover version has a much better cover; the mass-market does not do justice to the story inside. From what I’ve read of your reaction to these two books, I think you’d really enjoy Veil of Gold.

    • Kelly McCarty February 3, 2018 at 10:02 pm

      No, I haven’t read A Veil of Gold. I will have to check it out. Thanks.


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