The Girl in the Tower
Katherine Arden

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

Tell me the world is going to stop beating up on Vasya in the final book. I need to hear these words.

I’ve never actually encountered the fabled sophomore slump (in literature) unless you count the bone shard books, which I don’t really because my expectations weren’t particularly high and The Bone Shard Emperor magnified all the problems I had with The Bone Shard Daughter. But this book was really a surprise because after The Bear and the Nightingale I honestly thought Arden could do no wrong, only then she went and took the very few things I didn’t like about the first book and built the second book around them while removing pretty much everything I loved about the first book, and, like, why? This could not feel more personal if she literally tweeted “I hate bookycnidaria and I want her to suffer.”

The Girl in the Tower is the second installment of the Winternight trilogy, a dark Russian fantasy in which demons (called chyerti) are real and the people are both haunted and protected by little creatures who live alongside them, unseen and generally undetected, and perform domestic tasks in exchange for offerings. With the rise of Christianity, however, the native religion is fading from the collective consciousness, and the chyerti – who rely on regular offerings for their literal survival – are currently facing extinction. This might sound grim, but, though their power is greatly reduced, they are neither gone nor helpless. Even a small offering can revive them enough to leverage their magic, and many chyerti still stubbornly cling to life in, say, an oven or a stable, or the bathhouse of the Princess Olga Vladimirova of Serpukhov.

The years have changed Olga, but not really for the better. Married at fifteen to Prince Vladimir Andreevitch of Serpukhov, cousin to Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, Olga now spends most of her time in her husband’s palace in Moscow with a flock of highborn ladies she can barely stand. She is a loving mother to her two children, Marya and Daniil, with a third on the way, but her decade at court has knocked off all her childhood softness, leaving a (rightly) suspicious, embattled woman with a boatload of enemies who would love nothing more than to ship her off to a convent. (Something to consider if anybody here has ever fantasized about becoming a princess.) Her most trusted ally appears to be the slave Varvara, and, since her marriage, she has had no contact with her family, except her brother Sasha. Having left home at about seventeen against his father’s wishes, Sasha is now a warrior priest known as Brother Aleksandr Peresvet (“Lightbringer”), beloved of the people and one of Dmitrii’s most trusted advisors. He frequently travels during the course of his duties, but always makes time to visit Olga and her children. It is on one such visit that he returns with the nearly-dead Konstantin Nikonovich, bane of my life in the first book, who tells Olga that her father is dead, and that her young sister, Vasya, is to blame.

While Konstantin is brought back from the brink of Hell in Olga’s palace (again, why?), Sasha – who was dispatched to the Tatar city of Sarai to assess the khans’ strength in the context of a potential rebellion – advises Dmitrii against picking an unwinnable fight. Turnover is fierce in the Tatar court, with new khans rising like daisies and dropping like flies, and Dmitrii’s refusal to pay their tribute taxes has so far gone unchallenged. But the weakness at the top does not translate to a weakness among the khans’ generals and their armies, and, for all Dmitrii’s hotheaded eagerness, Sasha knows that open warfare will end badly for Rus’. Quite aside from the impossibility of overthrowing Tatar rule completely, there are serious problems at home: Tatars have recently been burning villages and abducting young girls, then vanishing without a trace. With no war on the horizon, Dmitrii is bored as fuck and uninterested in spending time with his seemingly barren wife, and he jumps at the chance to ride into battle with Kasyan Lutovich, a red-headed boyar who shows up in court one day to demand Dmitrii’s help with the bandits in his home province.

Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna leaves Lesnaya Zemlya immediately after the deaths of her father and stepmother. At loose ends and unwelcome in the only home she’s ever known, where the people mutter that she is a witch, she seeks temporary refuge in the house of Morozko. Though Morozko openly scorns her plans to travel the world with only the nightingale horse Solovey for company, he begrudgingly provides her with money and supplies, then follows her through the first leg of the journey as she encounters burned villages, grieving parents, and Tatar bandits who do not seem to be entirely human, all the while encouraging her to go home at once. Nevertheless, Vasya stubbornly rescues the Tatars’ most recent abductees, throwing their camp into chaos in the process, and – on the advice of a chyert called Midnight, whom she knows as a malevolent presence from her nurse Dunya’s stories – rides not to the girls’ destroyed village, but to a walled settlement not far away. Here she unexpectedly runs into Sasha, but their reunion grows dangerously complex when she introduces herself to Dmitrii as Vasilii Petrovich, Sasha’s younger brother. She genuinely means no harm, having disguised herself as a boy for safety’s sake, but this simple lie drags her and her siblings into a level of trouble she cannot fully understand. The oblivious Dmitrii, finding Vasilii’s company and courage most agreeable, showers “him” with attention and favor after “he” leads Dmitrii and his men straight to the bandits. Following a rousing victory, Dmitrii returns to Moscow, bringing both Vasya and Kasyan Lutovich along to join in the Maslenitsa (Russian Mardi Gras) celebrations.

Knowing that Vasya’s true identity could destroy their entire family if revealed, Sasha and Olga try to rein her in from the moment she arrives, intending to quietly send her away from the court for both her safety and theirs. This proves to be an impossible task as Vasya, already lightheaded with the unexpected joys of male privilege, is both accepted by and swept along with Dmitrii’s court. Her activities are quietly monitored by Kasyan, who dogs her footsteps and pulls her out of trouble a number of times, and also by Morozko, who has become attached to her but isn’t quite sure what to do about their growing mutual attraction. In between the attentions of her two suitors, she manages to bond with Olga’s daughter, who shares the second sight that allows Vasya to interact with the chyerti, but she also unwittingly drags the girl into a conflict with Chelubey, a visiting Tatar ambassador, whom she recognizes as the leader of the bandits. As seems to be usual with Vasya, this seemingly random encounter acquires extra barbs when she tries to warn others of Chelubey’s identity, creating additional strife between herself and her increasingly worried siblings as they beg her to keep a low profile. The spinning plates finally come crashing to the ground when Kasyan strips Vasya before the eyes of almost all of Moscow, revealing her definitively as a girl and causing Dmitrii to lose face in front of his own city. Completely humiliated and cast from Dmitrii’s grace, Vasya is placed under house arrest in Olga’s palace while Sasha is arrested for his complicity in her lie.

Having casually destroyed Vasya’s life and the reputations of her siblings, Kasyan offers to take her off her family’s hands via marriage, which Olga takes as the best possible solution to an unwinnable problem despite her own quiet misgivings. Unbeknownst to him, however, Vasya is still in sporadic contact with Morozko, who manages to warn Vasya that “Kasyan Lutovich” is a pseudonym for Kaschei the Deathless, a sorcerer who gained immortality by hiding his life in a place even Morozko – as the personification of death – cannot reach. Putting this together with the discovery that Kaschei paid Chelubey’s bandits to burn villages, Vasya and Sasha realize that Kaschei intends to assassinate Dmitrii at the height of the Maslenitsa festivities and install himself as Grand Prince. There is a personal side to his quest as well: though he had intended to marry Vasya to replace his former lover Tamara, who fled him decades ago and went on to become the wife of Grand Prince Ivan I and the mother of Marina Ivanova, he violently rejects her when he realizes she wears a necklace Morozko gave her, and abducts Marya in her place. This is a bad beginning, but Vasya manages to defeat him (after freeing an angry firebird and indirectly setting Moscow aflame – look, no one ever said coups were easy) and rescue Marya with the support of Morozko and the ghost of Tamara. With Kaschei finally, properly dead, Vasya thanks her grandmother, promising that the family will never forget her and wishing her peace.

This just leaves a city in flames, which after Kaschei’s almost-coup seems like child’s play. After dragging herself to the doors of death just to convince Morozko to send a blizzard to put out the fires (and succeeding), Vasya reunites with Olga and Sasha, who – though still unhappy with her over an itemized list of very reasonable grievances – listen when she tells them the full truth of her second sight and their father’s death. Their overall relationship is still somewhat rocky and it’ll take some time before things become more normal between them, but they manage to form a shaky alliance with one solid goal: to protect Marya from a world that will not understand her. As for Konstantin, I’ve barely mentioned him, but he’s still alive and kicking and for some reason obsessed with the idea of revenge on Vasya even though she’s saved his ungrateful ass more times than she should have. (To be completely transparent, I think one was too many.) He’s apparently set up for some big destiny that won’t make him happy, so I guess he’ll be around to annoy the shit out of me probably through the end of the next book.

That’s a lot of information, and it doesn’t even cover a fraction of what went on in this book. This is part of the reason The Girl in the Tower didn’t sit with me as well as The Bear and the Nightingale. Arden doesn’t do simple and I get that, but for me this is too much, and in my opinion the story suffers because of it. It’s not that The Bear and the Nightingale was any faster-paced. It wasn’t. But it was beautiful, entrancing, such stuff as dreams are made on, woven with a sharp, insightful humor that kept me hooked despite the maddening pace of the actual plot. While Arden remains a skillful writer, The Girl in the Tower was slow and boring, without the humor that made me fall in love with her prose. It isn’t even a particularly big book, but its slowness and density made it seem far longer than it actually is. It also doesn’t help that the first book was a portrait of a loving – albeit somewhat strange – childhood, and the second stripped all that away. I loved Vasya’s relationships with all of her siblings, except maybe Kolya, and to lose that unquestioned affection between her and her brother and sister was jarring.

I will admit that this is a me problem, because at the point that the story begins, Sasha and Olga are 27 and 25, respectively, and they haven’t seen their family in ten years. They’ve grown up, they’ve grown apart from their other siblings, they’ve moved on with lives that are very different from the ones they led in Lesnaya Zemlya. They have enemies and troubles aplenty, and they didn’t particularly need their brash baby sister, who was all of seven years old the last time they saw her, to poke every sleeping bear she could find. And that’s fair enough, but I wasn’t prepared for the acrimoniousness of their renewed relationship. While it is frustrating to spend 3/4 of the book watching Vasya be a stupid teenager, and while I do appreciate her willingness to accept culpability and to try to make amends to the people she unintentionally hurts, the messes she gets into are not entirely of her own making. She is seventeen, sheltered, the cherished youngest child of an affectionate family. There’s no reason she should know how to navigate a royal court, particularly not if she’s suddenly thrust into the middle of it as a favored companion of the Grand Prince himself, a position in which people actually listen to her for the first time in her life. I can’t imagine how intoxicating that must be. For all their dark hints and warnings, Sasha and Olga never spell out the exact consequences to Vasya until it’s far too late, and that seems like a massive disservice when they both have spent the last decade in court. They set her up for failure and then they blame her for mistakes that seem entirely avoidable, and I do not appreciate it.

And yet, deep in the throes of Olga’s nearly fatal labor, this book still made me cry because I didn’t want Olga to die any more than Vasya did, because she is still a doting older sister at heart and that’s lovely. I’m glad she survives, and I hope their relationship will grow stronger in the final book. I am ready to shovel Konstantin into a volcano if that’s what it takes for the Petrovich clan to make it out of their own story alive and intact. I have particularly high hopes for Vasya, who has stumbled onto a completely unexpected ability to defy death and drag people back from the brink against both their own will and Morozko’s. I would really love it if she becomes a magic-wielder in her own right, rather than relying on the goodwill of the fading chyerti. She seems to be heading that way, but Arden may yet surprise me. And while we are on the subject, I would very much appreciate it if every goddamn Alpha Boi in this series could quit whaling away on Vasya, please and thank you. We’re not talking about little wrist slaps. These dudes are swinging for her face. Sure, she was socialized to tolerate all kinds of abuse, but I still keep praying for her to snap and bite one of them. (That moment she finally introduces her knee to Konstantin’s tenders when he tries to go all Konstantin on her? GLORIOUS.)

In conclusion, I was looking for a continuation of the lovely, dreamlike trance of the first book, and I was looking for Konstantin’s untimely death, and this book did not deliver on either. It is well written and solidly grounded in Russian folklore, but it is too slow and too dense for my liking, and it isn’t particularly rewarding. Because after all the strife and the abuse and the drama, where are we? Everyone hates Vasya, and she is not welcome in Moscow. Is it going to be like this at the end of all of her stories? The other problem is that the plot is incredibly, disappointingly predictable. In the first book I had no idea where Arden was going, but here I knew that Kasyan was crushing on Vasya, I knew he knew she was a girl, I knew the ghost in Olga’s tower was Vasya’s grandmother, I knew Kasyan had orchestrated the bandit attacks himself for the purposes of taking the throne. I won’t say his strategy is the most efficient because I really thought the plan was to lure Dmitrii out to a place where he could be killed and then take the throne instead of playing courtier in Moscow for a week, but, hey, you do you, dude. I’m curious whether he acted of his own accord, or whether he was hired by the Tatar khans. Maybe I’ll get an answer in the third book.

Far worse than the predictability – at least from my point of view – are the unbelievably frustrating characters, even Vasya, though I love her still. I want to scream at Vasya for being such a stupid, stupid teenager who couldn’t even do her family the simple courtesy of cutting her hair just in case some alpha jackhole ever got it into his head to pull off her hat and reveal her as a girl. Does her hair not grow back? Why is it that marrying the same man who stripped her in public is tolerable, but preemptively cutting her hair to maintain her cover is not? Does that make sense to anyone? I want to scream at Sasha and Olga for being stupid adults who just assume that Vasya will magically know every nuance of court life, I want to scream at Morozko for being a grumpy vacillating ding-dong, and I most especially want to scream at this stupid fucking culture so meticulously designed to destroy my Vasya and others like her. I just want to scream, and that is never a happy feeling.

With all of the above out of my system, I am still looking forward to the final book. There is something I just love about the general vibe of this world Arden has brought to life, and, though I can’t put my finger on it, it is still present in every page of The Girl in the Tower, slow, agonizing ride though it was. I am in this story till its bitterest end. I want to see Vasya grow and step into her own as a powerful, confident witch. With any luck, that wish will be the backbone of The Winter of the Witch.