The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingalecontinues 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.
I am unabashedly in love with this book.
The Girl in The Tower had me hooked, line and sinker. My heart filled with the remembered joy of giving yourself up to a book, the equivalent of a whispered “oh,” husky and astonished and awakened. The first book prodded at the edges of my mind, but it was this one that climbed inside, turned several circles, and settled in with a grunt. Hours slipped by unseen, as though a shimmering veil of reverie has been drawn over me. I didn’t even register the ending happening because the whole moment seemed to occur outside the scope of reality. It was perfect.
So, what’s this book about?
Vasya Petrovna’s life as an independent woman with an unknown world to discover in all its colors has unfurled its sails yet again after a near miss with captivity. Vasya has forsaken her rather humdrum existence for adventure, but her excitement is overwhelmed by dread when she sees the veil lifted and beholds the true face of the world. Vasya’s mind is now spinning with all that is new—bandits burning villages to ashes and invincible foes allying to throw off her cousin’s yoke—and all that is not—”a frost-demon, cold and capricious but sometimes tender,” and the desolation of having found the place that fits before being torn away and cast back into lonely scatter.
But there is fire in Vasya, and it isn’t smothered, merely banked but it will burn before this is over.
The Girl in The Tower is so shockingly good at the things it’s doing. It’s intricate and mesmerizing and complex and embodies the best of the timeless fairy-tale aesthetic. With haunting imagery and gorgeously supple prose, Arden’s work inspires deep musings about identity, love, family, and commitment. She combines the hardships and beauties of Russian wilderness and grafts it seamlessly onto a world that intricately straddles the seen and the unseen. The result is a fast-paced and exhilarating novel that’s somehow also languorous, thoughtful, and intimate.
Arden also does so well by her characters. The depth and care and detail in their development is absolutely stunning. The book takes time between thrilling upsets and crises to let readers get to know them all better. It develops the tremendous internal stresses that will affect the more external battles to come and treats all these characters as real, whole, intense human beings.
But what I relished most about this book is how it completely pole-vaults over every expectation I had for what fantasy with strong lady leads should be and stands in splendid testimony to what it could be. Vasya’s character is a marvel. I love how her heart was soft but the edges of her hard enough to survive the world as it was. How there was a stubbornness about her that could never be petrified at the will of others—it rose at every attempt to intimidate her. How she was brilliant but proud, heroic but sometimes lacking in wisdom. How hope was a thin thread inside her, but she always reached for it anyway.
Me, contemplating my life choices from now on: would this make Vasilia Petrovna proud of me?
Another thing that really struck me throughout this book was the complex web of love and devotion and loss Vasya and her family were wrapped up with. The development of their relationships in tandem to how they grew even further into deep, three-dimensional characters is so well done. Sasha, Vasya’s brother, is at first determined to keep Vasya free of sin, and away from her dream, which, if not explicitly a sin, at least clears a path to it, but he quickly settles into the understanding that there’s no stopping his sister’s wanting—hard and spare and so, so alive. I also particularly loved Vasya’s sister, and the book’s gentle treatment of her foibles: what could have been a comic caricature of an overbearing, shallow sister whose character is denied the barest scrapings of agency is instead rendered with so much empathy and respect.
But nothing warmed the cold hollows inside me like seeing how Vasya had been braced for something ugly—confrontation, fury, blame—when she saw her brother and sister again for the first time, only to be met with the realization that the stone foundation they’ve all built as children has not eroded with time but perhaps grown stronger. Vasya’s fear of being discovered became the lesser torment. It was shame that tore her apart. The guilt for compromising her brother’s favor with the prince and soiling her sister’s carefully-cultivated reputation was a constant acid burn in Vasya’s gut. They loved her and wanted to protect her and it was all a bitter paradox: to keep her family, Vasya might have to lose them.
Arden also treats us to a slow-burning will-they-won’t-they romance that literally had me on the edge of my seat. I love how Vasya’s relationship with Morozko does not hinder Vasya’s independence, demonstrating the power of a well-matched pairing. They were not exactly friends, nor allies, but skirting past that line into something else entirely that neither of them wanted to consider. Vasya and Morozko made two bloody, sundered halves and their hearts were both raised on the grief of not having what they desired. I love how Vasya deliberately twists the levers of power between them. The frost-demon might be all too powerful, and he might have saved her life a few times, but Vasya owed him nothing: he would have of her only what she wanted to give. And when Arden finally begins to peel away the shell around Morozko, whose intentions has been until now shrouded in secrecy and shadows, both deliberate and magical, what we glimpse of him is not exactly pretty. But it won’t stop you from rooting so passionately for his happiness and general well-being.
Arden’s accomplishment in this book, and in this series, is magnificent. I cannot recommend it highly enough!