Monday, May 21, 2018

The Girl in the Tower - Katherine Arden

I enjoyed 'The Bear and the Nightingale' enough to want to see how Arden would continue her story, so got a kindle version of 'The Girl in the Tower' to read on my phone. It's not a format I'm particularly fond of, but I'm not a big fan of expensive hardback novels either, and I'm not convinced I'll read these again so it made sense.

I really liked 'The Bear and the Nightingale' despite its pacing - nothing much happens for ages, things then start to move quite quickly, sort of explode, and then stop abruptly. The second book picks up where the first one finishes and moves the action from the northern forests south to Moscow.

For someone who had just read the first book there was quite a lot of explanation to get through, but this one is better paced, even if the finale feels a little over the top - will Arden be able to finish this without raising the stakes ridiculously high? A lot of questions are answered and there are interesting relationships in play for the next novel.

If it's easier to believe in fairy tales against the forest setting if the first book, the risks seem more real against a city backdrop where old beliefs and customs have lost their sway.

The still almost a child Vasya of the first book had a certain amount of freedom to run around her home countrywide, but the Vasya who rides out alone disguised as a boy to travel is in an altogether riskier position.

As a well born girl more than old enough to be married she faces more than disapproval if she's caught, and when her brother and sister become involved in her deception the stakes are even higher because the threat of discovery and repercussions from it have serious implications for them too. Perhaps especially for Vasya's older sister, Olga.

Married to a prince, with children to keep safe and establish in an ever shifting and treacherous political landscape, all whilst in segregated seclusion, Olga is an excellent counterpoint to Vasya. She grounds the novel in so many ways, and provides itvwith its emotional heft. She's the character with the least agency, and the most to lose.

I still think this trilogy truly wants to be a thousand page epic, which makes having to wait another 6 months for the last part a bit frustrating. I still think these books are taking themselves a little bit too seriously as well - good as they are.

It's definitely worth reading up a bit on Russian fairy tales around these books though - and I'm very happy to have had the push to do that. Arden uses a lot of traditional devices (hello talking horses), and references a few major characters. Knowing a little more than I did a month ago when I read the first book I have a few ideas about where she might be heading with the last one (I might be completely wrong, but I'm looking forward to finding out). Also, it's fun to spot bits she's using, and to go back to the fairytales to chase references.


  1. Nice cover! I haven't read either of these, but I probably shall at some point. It sounds quite good fun. I am not a whole-hearted enthusiast for fairy-tale retellings - for me, part of the pleasure of many of the originals is the lack of overt psychology and consequent weirdness - but they can be good fun and this sounds intriguing.

    Also: talking horses! :)

  2. They are intriguing, and fun, though I definitely think inclined to take themselves a bit seriously. The first book has more folklore creatures in it, but feels like it goes lighter on the fairy tale element - and is better for that. The second book is better paced but uses fairy tales more overtly and is, for me, a bit heavy on the magic/fantasy elements. One of the central characters is a figure that starts in early folklore as death,and has turned into a frost demon/Jack frost character. In real folklore he apparently eventually evolves into Russian Father Christmas- and Arden has said she's particularly interested in this journey (I'm assuming this is a bit of a spoiler).

    There's a lot to like so far in the trilogy and they're perfect if you want something light and absorbing but backed with some solid research (though she's not afraid to mess around with historical details when it suits her, which here is a good thing). It doesn't get close to the bonkers darkness of the real thing though.