The Girl in the Tower (The Winternight Trilogy #2)
by Katherine Arden
Published December 2017
From Goodreads: The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.
Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.
The Bear and the Nightingale was my favorite book of 2017, so I was anxiously waiting for the sequel to arrive for me at the library. When it finally did, I was in the middle of two other books and because I wanted to devote my full attention to The Girl in the Tower, I waited to start it until I finished the other two.
I may not have given those two books the attention they deserved while I was trying to finish them. But I digress.
At the end of The Bear and the Nightingale, our heroine, Vasya, realizes she cannot stay in her home and so she says good-bye to what remains of her family and prepares to ride away on her magical horse, Solovey.
The Girl in the Tower picks up almost where the first book leaves off, though instead of starting with Vasya, it opens in Moscow with Vaysa’s elder sister, Olga, now married to a Russian prince for the past ten years. To soothe her frightened daughter, Marya, who is frightened by ghost stories, Olga tells Marya the story of the Snow Maiden- a girl made of snow who falls in love with a mortal boy, but cannot go to live with him because she is made of snow. The story seems like a mere distraction, but because Arden is good at what she does, the old folktale is relevant to the story for more than one reason.
It is not for a few chapters that we meet back up with Vasya and find out what she has been doing while we were in Moscow with her brother and sister. She has, as it turns out, been having a frightening adventure and proving that her courage from the first book was not a fluke after she and Solovey sneak into a bandit camp to rescue three kidnapped girls. After finding refuge for herself and the three girls, Vasya discovers that becoming a traveler is far more difficult that she thought it would be, and that maintaining her disguise as a boy will be even harder- especially when Grand Prince Dmitrii of Moscow– believing her to be a boy– takes Vasya under his wing and showers her with praise.
Upon their return to Moscow, the pressure to maintain the lie becomes almost unbearable, until Vasya uncovers a terrible plot that only she can stop.
“‘Witch.’ The word drifted across his mind. ‘We call such women so because we have no other name.”
-Katherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower
Women’s work, and a woman’s place in society are two themes that weave their ways through The Bear and the Nightingale. They are pushed even more to the forefront in The Girl in the Tower, due in part to its setting. In their little forest home, far from any city, it was easy enough for Vasya to be herself and suffer only sidelong looks from her neighbors. Yes, her father would punish her for being willful, but she could then slip into the forest where she would be safe- or at least relatively safe- among the mythical creatures only she could see.
Things are drastically different in Moscow, where noble women like Olga either spend the majority of their lives sheltered behind thick walls to protect their virtue, or are shuttered within a convent, there to spend their lives in service to God. Neither of these options is acceptable to Vasya, who wishes to see the world and can’t help but believe in the old ways, rather than in the prayers and ringing bells of the new world they are going into. If it were merely a matter of buying supplies and heading into the wild blue yonder, it would have been easy enough for Vasya to leave. But her siblings, Olga and Sasha and there, and she loves them. These familial ties cause horrendous complications all around. Olga and Sasha risk angering the Grand Prince if they reveal the truth about Vasya, but Vasya cannot keep her secret forever. Custom demands that Vasya be closed up in a tower- either through marriage or in a convent- but Olga and Sasha know that Vasya will never settle for either of those options of her own free will.
So what is to be done with this free-spirited, brave, and charismatic young woman?
Vasya challenges these customs at every turn, even pointing out her brother’s hypocrisy. Sasha, a monk, by rights should be tending a garden and chanting his prayers in a monastery somewhere, not riding to battle and advising the Grand Prince. “If you can, why not I?” Vasya asks him angrily at one point, and Sasha cannot answer this. Because really, if a monk can be courageous then why can’t a woman be, as well?
The Girl in the Tower does not answer this question. I don’t think any one book or book series can. Perhaps Vasya will never find a perfect place in her society. Maybe she will. But I don’t know that this is necessarily the point. Vasya is herself, nothing more and nothing less, and she is strong enough to make a place for herself somewhere, even if it is not in her Russian homeland. There are two things that she is searching for, though she may not know it: love and forgiveness. Forgiveness for what happened at the end of The Bear and the Nightingale, and a love that will not lock her away for the rest of her life.
The trope of the Strong Female Character is a tricky one to deal with. Often, creators will put a sword or gun into a woman’s hand, give her some snarky dialogue and a disdain for marriage or motherhood and declare her to be a Strong Female Character while completely overlooking some of the primary issues of femininity and scorning ‘woman’s work’. Whyever would a Real Heroine like to sew or cook, after all?
Vasya is one of those rare fantasy heroines whose primary characteristic is not “Wields a Sword”. She does not shy away from domestic duties like cleaning and sewing, and she respects and cares for the household spirits wherever she is. She takes care of the children in her life, and does not flinch away from woman’s work, despite being disguised as a boy. Her strength rises from her great love and respect for the world and the people in it, not because she aspires to be some great warrior.
We need more feminine heroes whose strength does not arise from the battlefield, and whose power is not granted by royalty or the ability to command troops. There are many kinds of power and strength in the world. Vasya’s comes from love and the desire for truth.
As much as I love characters like Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings or Zoe from Firefly, if I had to pick a character for the little girls in my life to aspire to be like, I think I would choose Vasya.