Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower is the second book of the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden. Spoilers abound for Book 1, so read at your own risk, or start with The Bear and the Nightingale.

I genuinely regret making a Twilight comparison in my review of The Bear and the Nightingale. Not because it was undeserved, but because I had trouble seeing Morozko as Morozko and not Edward Cullen. For example, when Vasya was dying in a snowdrift, Morozko materialized to massage heat into her hands and body in that sexual/nonsexual way common to bad YA novels. I have a quote on this scene that would be at home in any Twilight book, but won’t post it because this book eventually gets better—much better.

The Girl in the Tower begins where The Bear and the Nightingale leaves off. It takes Vasya a few chapters to enter the story, but when she does, she’s dressed as a boy, having just rescued three young girls from bandits. After her dramatic entrance, there’s a flashback to the beginning of her travels. This section is the slowest part of the book because, while I could feel it was supposed to be tense and suspenseful, it wasn’t—I knew it would end with Vasya finding and rescuing the girls, then reuniting with her brother.

There are moments in this flashback section when the book seems like it might tilt to negative YA tropes, especially when Vasya is alone (except for her talking horse, Solovey). For starters, every man falls for Vasya in his own creepy way. Her inner strength and fire make her attractive in a way that tiptoes up to “not like other girls” territory (that is, when a character’s core strength/value is being unlike other women—you know, other women, those weak, hysterical creatures). At times, Vasya leans into this too, like she’s the first person to want more than being a wife and mother, but you’d think someone who so narrowly escaped an arranged marriage might appreciate that not all wives and mothers choose their course freely. It’s not a flaw for a character to have a blind spot, of course, but Vasya’s simple way of looking at the world seemed to shrink it. Fortunately, as other characters appear, her sister in particular, the world opens back up and becomes nuanced.

Once Vasya arrives in Moscow, in disguise and lauded as a hero, the book picks up steam. Morozko is barred from entering the city, so he’ll be unable to save her from whatever is about to happen. Vasya meets her young niece, who, like her, dreams of an independent life. The villain begins to take shape, and there are enough political machinations to pull the principle characters in all directions. Arden doles out information especially well in this section; while the general source of the trouble is plain, its direction and motive aren’t known for a while. The second half of this book is so dramatically different in style and energy that I was glad to have stuck with it. To be fair, when I started this book, I was still sore over Book 1’s terrible ending.

The most interesting parts of The Girl in the Tower are also the best parts of The Bear and the Nightingale: Vasya continues to reach out to the spirits she meets on her travels. While Morozko teaches her a few defensive moves with a knife, Vasya’s chief skill and strategy is to respectfully approach all spirits and demons that cross her path. While looking for the missing girls, she speaks to a domovoi—house spirit—in one of their homes:

Sooty tears welled up in the domovoi’s eyes, and it sat down in the oven-mouth with a puff of ash. “I tried to tell them,” it said. “‘Death,’ I cried, last night. ‘Death.’ But they only heard the wind.” (102)

So when Vasya saves the girls, it’s not because she’s some fabled fighter, but because of her more subtle (and no less valuable) skill in listening to spirits. She asks for help and keeps an open mind as to where it might be hidden. She’s gutsy, and her strengths are well balanced. Many puzzles are solved with cleverness or persistence, which makes her as relatable as a heroine in a fantasy novel can be.

Without crossing into spoilers, the showdown that closes this novel is lightyears more interesting than that in Book 1. While I could tell who the villain was fairly early, I couldn’t work out their motive. The fight is more personal, and the stakes are higher and better defined. There are no Twilight moments! (Or, if there are, I was too entertained to notice. It was around 3 a.m.—there’s a certain point at which this book is impossible to put down.)

As a whole, The Girl in the Tower is a very solid middle book: It builds on the strengths of Book 1 while upping the stakes, developing characters, and telling a story that doesn’t simply tread water until the events of Book 3. There were also a number of scenes with more emotional heft than I would have expected from its crummy beginning. Note: There’s a horrifying childbirth scene that firmly pushes the story into more adult territory—I think it would need to be toned down in order to pass in a YA book.

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5.0) A much improved storyline and all the magic of Book 1 (and then some). I’m still not convinced by the romantic subplot, even if the players can no longer be likened to Bella and Edward. I’m feeling some optimism towards Book 3, only half the books I’ve read by Arden have had a decent ending. . .

Image credit: Goodreads

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