If you’re a regular peruser of my blog, you may have noticed that I’m a fan of novels that incorporate mythology, fairytales, etc. I’m fascinated by the power of such stories–their ability to resonate across time, surviving all kinds of cultural upheaval to touch even modern readers, as they’ve touched readers throughout the preceding centuries.
I’ll confess: Though I know there’s a wide world of folktales beyond this, I’m most familiar with the Western European canon. This is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy–it affords a glimpse into the (to me) less familiar world of Russian stories.
Last November, I read book no. 1 in the series–The Bear and the Nightingale (review here)–and quite enjoyed it. Which made me both curious and leery of the sequel. I wanted to know what happened next… but a bad second book can ruin its predecessor.
I’m happy to say volume 2–The Girl in the Tower–more than held its own. The Girl continues the tale of Vasilisa–a young woman gifted with the sight to witness the world of folk magic underpinning medieval Russia. The novel charts Vasilisa’s course as she adopts the guise of a boy, fleeing marriage to pursue a life of adventure on the road. Where The Bear was occasionally slow-paced, The Girl sweeps steadily, compellingly forward. The night I finished the novel, I had every intention of reading for just 15 minutes, then heading to bed (like a responsible adult). Instead, I devoured the last 70 pages in one shot, staying awake into the wee hours. For me, this is the litmus test of a well-plotted novel–the happy sacrifice of sleep so you can finish reading. Or, as my brother-in-law would say, a book to ruin your next day by.
Arden’s novels are also exquisitely atmospheric. Admittedly, The Girl has somewhat less of the magical cast of The Bear (which beautifully portrays a world in which enchanted house- and husbandry-guardians subtly underpin mortal life). But The Girls‘s reverent and fierce portrait of a medieval Russia under winter’s cloak is lovely. I felt all the beauty and hazard of that forbidding wilderness, and its significance to the people who lived there, penning tales of winter kings and midnight demonesses.
As she did in The Bear, Arden tackles historically significant themes in The Girl with a vivid hand. Where The Bear examines the collision of folk belief with Russian Orthodoxy, The Girl brings to life the impossible situation faced by women like Vasilisa. With an untamed heart, a love for the wilderness, and a gift deemed dangerous witchcraft, Vasilisa is suited for neither a convent nor the restrictive life of a married noblewoman–the only paths open to her. The painful tension between her heart’s desires and the narrowness of her options yields a palpably felt rock-and-a-hard-place scenario… one rife with serious consequences for herself, her brother (warrior monk Aleksandr), and her sister (Princess Olga). As a reader, I felt all the hopelessness of Vasilisa’s situation, as well as her grief at endangering the siblings so beloved to her.
If the decisions she makes out of this struggle, and the scrapes she gets into–against the advice of trusted council–are cringe-worthy to witness, they are also utterly believable as Vasilisa restlessly seeks to carve out a space in which she can be free.
The Girl ends on a note well-suited and satisfying, being an equal mixture of bitter and sweet in a mode reflective of so many folktales. Not all ends well–how can it in a world where bad and no-win choices are made, a world in which the historical and magical restrictions on its central characters are maintained? And yet, victory is won, too, and love has its own triumph. For an admirer of fairytales, that sort of ending is the very best.
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