Book Reviews

Book Review: The Girl in The Tower

Title: The Girl in the Tower
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Mythology, Fiction, Historical Fiction

What It’s About: After the events of the Bear and the Nightingale, Vasilisa leaves behind her brother and half sister at her home, entering the world of snow with her horse, Solovey. She finds her way to the home of the Frost-Demon, Morozko and he ultimately gives her the dowry meant for her to marry someone, for her to use for her travels. She dreams of a woman in white telling her that she should leave at once, so Vasya heads out to the world.

As this is occurring, Olga tells her children a story about a couple who could not have children, so they sculpted one out of ice and loved her until she fell in love and then melted because she was made of ice. Her daughter, Marya, thinks she sees a ghost in the corner of the room. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door and Olga’s brother, Sasha, the monk shows up with another priest, who turns out to be Konstantin. He tells her that the priest needs a place to recover as he was emaciated. When Olga has a moment, she speaks with Konstantin who tells her of Vasya’s evil deeds, the death of her father and stepmother, and the presumption that Vasya is dead too after she fled.

Sasha visits the Head Priest in Moscow and finds out from a different priest that the Grand-Duke, Dmitrii, is getting bored of his childless wife, and needs an adventure, so Sasha decides to take him with him to travel. As they leave, they encounter a man by the name of Kasyan, who tells them that he needs their help in defending against whoever is attacking his vast holdings. The group heads out and they come across villages burned and destroyed, until they make it to the old monastery where Sasha trained and meet with Sergei. There seems to be a lot of villagers seeking refuge in the Monastery, and as they settle in, a boy is riding for his life with two girls, seeking refuge in the Monastery.

Vasya, in the meantime, encounters the demon Midnight, who refuses to tell her who sent her but tells Vasya that she will see her three more times along her journey. As she travels, Vasya catches a cold from the conditions, and seeks refuge in a city she thought is Moscow, but turns out to be a smaller town. She disguises herself as a boy and walks around, fascinated by the sights. There, she encounters Kasyan, who thinks he recognizes her, but she manages to get away and hides in a bathhouse. Unfortunately, two men break into the bathhouse and she and Solovey escape only thanks to a snowstorm that descends.

Vasya continues to get sicker, and only when she is on the brink of death, Morozko saves her and nurses her to health. Instead of taking stock of her disastrous travel, and going home, Vasya decides to continue traveling on, so Morozko fashions her knives out of ice and teaches her how to fight with them. When she’s ready to go back out into the world, he kisses her and leaves her alone.

On her adventure, Vasya comes across another pillaged, burnt village where a woman tells her that her daughter was kidnapped, while her husband was killed. Vasya and Solovey set off to find the girl, coming upon her and two others held by bandits in a camp. Solovey distracts the men, while Vasya rescues the girls, killing the one guard left behind and getting onto Solovey, who doubled back just in time.

The bandits pursue Vasya and the girls all night, so much so that even Solovey begins to tire. Midnight shows up for a second time, and tells Vasya, against the orders given to Midnight, to ride due west. Vasya trusts her, and at daybreak the frozen girls come upon a walled monastery. Vasya begs for the monks to let them in, and to her surprise and delight, Sasha is there. Vasya introduces herself as Vasili, a boy, and Sasha stays complicit in that ruse because it will keep her safe for now. Dmitrii asks Vasili to come hunting the bandits with them, and calls for a bath and food for the girls. When they find the bandits, a fight ensues and they’re not exactly faring well against the bandits, until Kasyan arrives with his men. He attempts to make Vasya kill the bandit, sad that they could not find the bandit captain, but Sasha tells him that Vasya is tired.

When they get back to the monastery, Vasya stays with her horse to avoid going to the baths, while Sasha goes with his mentor, Sergei, to a separate bath. There, the two men talk and Sergei reveals to Sasha that he knows exactly who Vasya is. Once they’ve finished, Sasha and Vasya talk, where Vasya tells him what has happened since his departure, including their father’s death but with limited details. That night, Vasya dreams of the Bear and then Morozko appears. She surprises him by grabbing his cloak, pulling him close and asking why he came. He tells her it’s because he heard her cry, and she retorts that he cannot keep coming and leaving her. He agrees, but then vanishes. Sasha talks with Sergei, and tells him that he will put Vasya away quietly with Olga in Moscow, so the story of his brother might disappear, though both men doubt she would stay quiet. They also discuss Kasyan, of whom they’ve never heard before, and both seem a little suspicious of the man,

The oldest of the three girls Vasya rescued, Katya, tells her that the men are telling her that they must lie together as payment for everything Vasya had done for her. She is sad and scared but seems to be resigned to her fate. Vasya reveals to her that she is a girl and will see them home safely. As they return to Katya’s village, Vasya hesitantly gives Katya her true name but tells her it must be kept a secret. The girls are returned to their mothers, with a dowry given to them by Vasya. Then, the group journeys on to Moscow, and Vasya is overwhelmed by the huge, beautiful city.

Sasha takes Vasya to Olga, who cannot believe her eyes because Konstantin told her that Vasya was dead, and is disappointed that Sasha didn’t tell Dmitrii the truth about Vasya. It means that now they will have to sneak Vasili away, make Vasya lay low until that is accomplished, and introduce Vasya as a separate person. At the gathering that night, Vasya recognizes the captain of the bandits, named Chelubey, and he is actually a Tatar, a Russian royal. She attempts to tell Sasha the truth, and he does not believe her because she had not been honest with him at all. She assures him that she recognizes him, and that she’s telling Sasha as much as she can about her life since he left.

Later that night, Vasya hears a woman weeping in the hall outside her door, who turns out to be a ghost. The next morning, her niece Marya wakes her up and tells her that she overheard her mother talking to Sasha about Vasya and knows that she’s her aunt instead of her uncle. She threatens to reveal Vasya’s secret, but they soon strike a deal and it turns out Marya sees everything that Vasya does including the ghost and the domovoi.

They go riding in the city together that morning, and just before they leave, the domovoi tells Marya a prophecy that scares her. Vasya cautions her that prophecies can be deceiving. In town, Vasya, Marya and Solovey eat cakes and look at horses because Vasya is considering purchasing one. Then Chelubey comes along with a troupe of men and recognizes Solovey. He questions Vasya about the horse, realizing that she recognizes him too, and asks to purchase Solovey but Vasya says that he wouldn’t let anyone but her ride him. They get into a small scuffle when he assures her that he would be able to break Solovey, she says no, and him and his men box her in. Kasyan comes to her rescue, helps her keep Marya covered and sneaks her back onto the castle grounds. There, Marya’s maid is waiting to snatch the child away and tells Vasya that Olga is waiting for her. Olga berates her, and Vasya notes that both Olga and Marya are trapped, to which Olga tells her that it’s her fault their father is dead.

Eventually Vasya encounters Chelubey again, and bets him that she can tame the mare he had bought, which was the same one she was considering to purchase. The bet is that if she can ride it, she keeps the horse; if she can’t, he gets Solovey. The crowd places bets on who will win, and she talks to the horse, eventually mounting and riding the mare. Chelubey appears to accept it to the crowd but angrily whisper to her that he’ll have his recompense some day. Vasya names the mare Zima, for winter. Kasyan had watched the whole thing and notes that she is a master horsemen, offering her to become a horse breeder in his court. Vasya loves the idea and thinks it over, but realizes it’s not possible for her to do it. Kasyan also asks her why Chelubey recognizes her and tells her to try him when she claims her own brother didn’t believe her. Ultimately she tells him the truth, and he claims to believe her but adds that they need more witnesses before they tell Dmitrii.

The Maslenitsa celebration takes off after a long church service, and during that celebration, Sasha comes to Vasya, begging her to step out of the limelight, and hide in Olga’s tower until they can quietly send Vasili away and introduce Vasya as a woman, but she won’t have it. She claims they must keep up the lies, while she secretly vows to leave on her own, and then decides to tell Dmitrii about Chelubey that very night. Kasyan keeps interrupting her every time she attempts to tell Dmitrii, and then challenges her to a horse race in the morning. She accepts but attempts to tell Dmitrii anyway, and when Kasyan comes near her again, she begins to see the other world very plainly–the domovoi serving at the banquet and then Morozko in the doorway. She goes to Morozko and senses that Kasyan is watching, but that soon disappears.

She invites Morozko to join her at the table, but he wants to go for a ride instead. They race through the night on their horses and stop to talk, during which Vasya wants him to tell her what path to choose. They kiss for a long time, before Morozko pulls away, says no, and wants to tell her something before settling on telling her to be careful no matter what path she chooses. He confirms that he will fade as spring comes, and Vasya rides away without looking back. Morozko watches her the whole time, and they both miss the red light streak across the sky. Kasyan, however, knows exactly what it means.

The next morning Kasyan visits Vasya as she is grooming Solovey for the race, meaning to tell her something, but they get interrupted ultimately by Sasha who kicks Kasyan out to speak with Vasya in confidence. Sasha tells her that he believes her about Chelubey as he cannot find anyone who knows anything about him. So they decide that they will tell Dmitrii about Chelubey, which Vasya says she will do after the race, and also tell Sasha the truth about the Bear and their father’s death. Sasha tells her that he will pray for her for the race, but she is also certain that Solovey can’t be outmatched.

At the race, Kaysan arrives on a golden mare that is no ordinary horse, just like Solovey, and makes a bet with Vasya: If she wins, she gets his mare; if he wins, she must marry him. She is startled he knows she is a girl, and does her best to win the race. It is close, though Solovey edges out a win in the end. Still, Kasyan pulls off Vasya’s cap and reveals she is a girl. Dmitrii is stunned and furious about the deception, and has Kasyan cut off her clothes so all can see her form for sure. Then Dmitrii has Sasha bound and taken away because he had been complicit in the lie, while Vasya is taken to Olga’s tower to be held captive. Olga ensures that Vasya is bathed, clothed and fed, but is furious with her sister because she believes that Vasya has cost their father his life, Sasha his freedom, and quite possibly Olga her family if they think she knew.

In the meantime, Kasyan visits Konstantin in his cell because he knows that the priest loves and hates Vasya. He gives him a task and promises him vengeance on Vasya if he complies. Konstantin has hated the feelings that Vasya stirred in him, so he agrees even though the plan bothers him.

That night, the ghost visits Vasya’s room, and Vasya cuts her arm with her necklace so the ghost can drink her blood and gain strength. She finally tells Vasya that she has to run tonight. At the same time, Morozko appears because Vasya’s blood touched the jewel he gave her, and tells her that he’ll help her escape, but vanishes when Olga comes to tell her Kasyan is calling on her. Kasyan threatens all of Vasya’s family if she doesn’t marry him. She tries to buy some time, but he is having none of it, and finally she agrees. Kasyan tells her that they wed tomorrow, and she knows that he’s orchestrated everything–burning of the villages, the bandit turned ambassador, and making Dmitrii look foolish–to put himself in power. He kisses her and compares her to the love he lost, saying that she’ll do. He kisses her again, touches her against the wall, and she vomits when she leaves the room. Vasya is taken to Olga’s room, where they eat a meal together, during which Vasya tells her that they have to tell Dmitrii about Kasyan and Chelubey, though Olga makes it clear that Vasya’s marriage to Kasyan is not up for debate.

Then Olga goes into labor, and Vasya goes into the bathhouse with Olga and the midwives. The labor does not progress well, and Vasya sees Morozko in the corner of the room because he has come for Olga. Vasya begs for her sister’s life, so Morozko sweeps both Vasya and Olga into a different realm, where he tells Olga either she or the baby must die. Olga wants the baby to live, but Vasya continues to beg for her sister’s life and pulls her back to life. The baby is born stillborn and Olga tells Vasya to leave. Konstantin is there to perform the last rites, and he drags Vasya away, who knees him and runs into the night. Morozko catches her and she asks him for the truth.

He tells her that he gave her father the choice to live or to die for his family, just like Olga. Pyotr made his choice to sacrifice as Olga did, and reveals to Vasya that her tie to him is due to him making the necklace and choosing her as a child in order for him to not fade away. He needs to be tied to flesh and blood to live, and then she rips off the necklace, and gives it to him. She tries to run away, but he tells her that Kasyan has plans for her, though he cannot see them because they’re veiled in magic.

Rodion, another priest and friend of Sasha’s, arrives at the cell where Sasha is being held with the news about what he found regarding Kasyan. Kasyan’s home is exactly what the name denotes, a tower of bones, and that he had been the one behind the burning of the villages. Vasya shows up and tells her brother that Kasyan plans to act tonight to kill Dmitrii and take over as a ruler. Rodion, Sasha, and Vasya ‘escape’ the prison, and attempt to get into the palace to warn Dmitrii.

They sneak around, and lift Vasya over a wall; unfortunately they are a bit late as the palace courtyard is in an uproar since Kasyan and his men are already there. Vasya rushes to let Sasha in but Rodion is already gone. Sasha rushes towards Dmitrii while Vasya goes to find Solovey, and upon finding him, she frees him and the golden mare, which turns out to be a fire bird that flies away, setting the barn on fire. Vasya and Solovey free as many horses as they can before heading back to the courtyard that is in chaos.

Vasya sees that Konstantin has Marya and rides towards them, but Kasyan beats her to them, and rides away with Marya. When Vasya gets to Konstantin, he tells her that he struck a deal with Kasyan that he could have Vasya if he got Marya for Kasyan. Vasya forgives him this time because he baptized Olga’s baby, but the next time she will kill him. Chelubey then rides in with warriors both dead and alive. Sasha in the meantime, has rejoined the melee to look for Dmitrii, and when he finds him, he helps Dmitrii fight back against four men. Dmitrii asks why Sasha lied to him, and he tells him that it’s for her virtue and her courage, but promises that there are no more lies between them. Dmitrii forgives him, and asks about the men. Sasha tells him that they are Kasyan’s, who in turn is there to take the throne. The two men along with the citizens of Moscow go fight Chelubey and his men. Vasya leaves Solovey with Sasha and heads to the tower to rescue Marya.

As Vasya climbs, she sees the ghosts of those she loves, and the ghost both she and Marya had seen before shows her the hidden door to the room where Marya is being held. When Vasya enters, she sees that the room is opulent, and there is a gold necklace with a red jewel around Marya’s neck, causing her to be glaze-eyed. Vasya offers to trade her life for Marya’s but Kasyan laughs at her and kicks her in the stomach. The ghost then enters the room and it’s revealed that she is his long lost love, Tamara, and Vasya’s grandmother.

Turns out that while Tamara loved Kasyan, she ran away from him eventually due to his cruelty. Vasya fights Kasyan, and thanks to Tamara’s insight, she rips away the necklace on Marya’s neck, thereby breaking the spell. Marya’s released from the bond, and the opulence of the room fades, so Vasya tries to run with her. Unfortunately Kasyan stops her and tells her that he is invincible. It is then that she realizes the story that Dunya told her about him and connects the dots that Tamara’s ghost is stuck and him being alive are connected due to a necklace he gave Tamara that holds his heart. Vasya seizes the invisible necklace from Tamara’s neck, but Kasyan grabs Marya and puts his sword at her throat. When he is distracted, Vasya pushes the sword away from Marya and crushes the necklace. This causes Kasyan to die, and Morozko to show up to take Tamara away.

Vasya and Marya emerge to find a victorious Dmitrii and Sasha, but a burning city thanks to the fire that started in the stable due to the flaming bird. Midnight appears one last time, and when Vasya begs her, she tells her that Morozko could have done something with his wind and snow to save the city, but that when Vasya broke his jewel and banished him, he can now only help and be seen by the dead. Midnight also tells her that Vasya’s strength made him more human and he loved her.

As everyone flees the city, Sasha goes after Olga, once he tells Vasya that he wants her and Marya out of the city. Vasya sends Marya alone on Solovey’s back and runs directly into the fire. Since Morozko said she’d only see him again at her death, she tries to die in the flames, resulting in her being transported to his other-world. She yanks him back to the real world and he summons a wind and a blizzard to squelch the fire.

This results in a conversation between them where he tells her that the necklace he gave her was similar to what Kasyan did to Tamara, but that Kasyan had found a way to avoid death by binding his life to Tamara’s. Vasya wants to know more about Tamara, but before Morozko can answer the monastery bells tolls, calling in spring, and he tells her that he cannot live in the sun after Midwinter. He begins fading away, and Vasya kisses him to try to keep him with her, begging him to live. He kisses her back and tells her that he cannot be both alive and immortal, but when the wind blows and when men die, he will be there and that it has to be enough. He kisses her one last time, and Vasya stands there alone.

Sasha is shocked by the snowstorm, and when he returns Marya to Olga and reports that Vasya saved her, Olga wants to see her sister. Vasya comes into the palace, and tells them the. truth about everything from when Konstantin arrived at their home to the present, showing them Solovey and the dagger that Morozko made as proof. Olga asks about Marya having the sight, and Vasya confirms it, so Olga claims that Marya must be protected from all men and sorcerers alike.

My Thoughts: The second book in this series was just as engaging as the first, and I loved every moment of reading it. Then again, I have a soft spot for Slavic folklore in general, so this feels familiar and right at home. I love the strength of Vasya, and how she is cunning enough to hide her features because she wants to follow her path in a time when that would not have been allowed; how she continues to follow her own heart and path based on believing herself.

If you are interested in getting an idea of Russian/ Slavic Folklore–this book continues to masterfully weave the stories in a very delightful re-telling. Would definitely recommend to read this as part of the series.

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