Why You Need to Read: “The Girl in the Tower”

Winternight Trilogy, #2: The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Published: December 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Highborn women, who must live and die in towers, were much given to visiting. Now and again, they stayed overnight for company, when their husbands were away, (1: The Death of the Snow-Maiden).

            Folklore maintains traditions and cultures that are passed down from generation to generation. Since many of the stories, traditions and foods are shared through practice and oral tradition instead of being written down, many variants of folklore exist. The most popular example of multiple variants is the story, “Cinderella.” Every era and culture has their “version” of “Cinderella,” which contains the same elements (i.e. stepmother and magic) alongside the region’s culture. Then, there is the concept of expanding on these tales. Disney has done this with Maleficent and others, and Katherine Arden has done this with Vasilisa the Beautiful in her Winternight Trilogy. She provides more backstory of Vasya in The Girl in the Tower, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale

            The story reintroduces readers to Olga, Vasya’s older sister who left Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow for marriage, who is now the Princess of Serpukhov. 10 years have passed since she and her older brother, Aleksandr Peresvet—or Sasha, left their family, and both of them have settled to life in the capital. Olga has two children—Marya and Daniil—and is expecting her third; Sasha is a monk and an adviser to Dmitrii Ivanovich, the Grand Prince of Moscow. Brother Sasha has returned from a journey back home, with a traveler from Lesnaya Zemlya. Yes, Konstantin Nikonovich has managed to attach himself to the rest of Vasya’s family. Meanwhile, Sasha and the Grand Prince meet with a boyar—Kasyan Lutovich of Gosudar—over his concerns regarding bandits. As Sasha and Kasyan travel out of Moscow to investigate, their party runs into Vasya and her stallion, Solovey. Vasya has been forced into exile from her home, and refuses to marry or to join a convent, so she rides in search of freedom and a new identity. When she is reunited with the rest of her family, she goes by the alias, Vasilii Petrovich, the youngest brother of Brother Sasha and Princess Olga. While Vasya gets to experience the freedom she’s always wanted, she must heed the warnings of her family of disguising herself as a male in the Russian court, as well as staying hidden from her enemies both old and new. Vasya undergoes the most development as a character as she continues to grow into the person she want to be. Meanwhile, readers learn of the complexity of Sasha and Olga as they try to protect their sister while conforming to their roles and society’s expectations. 

            The plot involves the aftermath of the events in The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya is no longer welcomed at Lesnaya Zemlya, and after “rejecting” Morozko again, she travels the Russian wilderness on Solovey—the stallion given to her by Morozko and communicating with the chyerti, until she meets up with Sasha and the party tracking down a group of bandits. For her role, Vasya is hailed a “hero,” but must call herself a male so she is not labeled a “witch” again. Prince Dmitrii is pleased with Vasilii’s bravery and with knowing of “his” relation to Sasha, Vasilii is invited to court against Sasha’s wishes. Once in Moscow, Vasya must learn court etiquette, how to humble those who envy her, and keep her “Gifts” to herself. If any or all her secrets are revealed, then the consequences will be dire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the mystery surrounding Kasyan Lutovich. Why did he travel to Moscow when his village was attacked by bandits? And, what does he have against the Grand Prince, Brother Sasha, and Vasilii? The second subplot involves the old magic that struggles to survive in Moscow. In fact, there might be another who can help the denizens remember the old ways, but Vasya might have to earn their trust before assisting them.

            The narrative in The Girl in the Tower is entwicklungsroman, or “novel of character development.” Even though Vasya is an adolescent, she still has some growing up to do before she can have her bildungsroman experience. That is not to say she isn’t learning in this story. Vasya learns more about the various chyerti she encounters and what they want from her. At the same time, Vasya continues to struggle with her identity in a changing Russia as forces—both human and magical—threaten to upset the order of things. There are multiple points-of-view within the narrative which provides the readers with the knowledge of everything that is going on. The narration follows a sequence that is told in present time, with the exception of Part II, which provides a flashback of events. The streams-of-consciousness of Vasya, Sasha, Olga and Konstantin allows for the narrative to be followed, although only the reader(s) know which characters are the reliable narrators. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses in this novel provides a deeper look into Russian folklore and culture, mixed with familiar fairy tale tropes. Readers reacquaint themselves with a fierce heroine, innocent princesses, a dashing prince, and magical beings while absorbing Russian folklore and history. While the themes of religion, sex and gender, political structure, and societal expectations are repeated, the themes of identity and family are explored further in The Girl in the Tower; and, a few clues surrounding Vasya’s family heritage are revealed. The mood in this novel is loyalty. Should one be more loyal towards their family over royalty? Should one choose religion over family? The tone of the novel is choice. Who deserves loyalty and why? The choice one makes about their life and themselves while knowing the consequences of those choices are mentioned over and over throughout the book. Making choices and how those choices affect others is explored in this story as well. Once again, the Author’s Note, Glossary, and A Note on Russian Names are a helpful in following and in comprehending the terminology in this novel. 

            The appeal for The Girl in the Tower matches the first book. Both readers and critics agree that this sequel is a strong follow up to The Bear and the Nightingale. Fans of Naomi Novik and S.A. Chakraborty will enjoy this series the most. And, it is a great addition to both the fantasy and the folklore canons. Vasya’s story concludes in The Winter of the Witch. It is safe to say that both readers and fans will NOT be disappointed with how the trilogy will end. 

            The Girl in the Tower is a strong sequel that does not slow down the pace of the trilogy. Fans of fairy tales and folklore will appreciate the homage the author gives them; and, readers will enjoy how the “old beliefs” played their part in the world-building of the narrative, and in the culture of a nation. Katherine Arden does NOT disappoint her readers. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Speculative Fiction: A Label for the Growing Spectrum of the Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction & Horror

*My 100th Blog Post!*

For the past year in which I have devoted more time to working on my blog, I have gained a larger audience—followers, readers and other supporters—than I thought possible. Remember, even the most successful bloggers and vloggers start out as “small channels” and are thankful for those who support them. I feel the same way. Knowing that you all have taken the time to read, to comment, to subscribe/follow, and to share my content is a great feeling. I’m extremely grateful for all of you, and it’s because of you all I know what I’m doing is being appreciated by the macrocosm. 

            One of several topics I’ve been discussing with other fans, readers, bloggers and vloggers is the concept of genre and the limitations its definition bestows upon it. The notion that genres can and should be placed within “fixed” classifications is similar to the concept that gender is binary—which, it isn’t! Over the last 100 years, the genres have become more ubiquitous and more successful due to books written by L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, J.K. Rowling, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Shirley Jackson, Isabel Allende, Haruki Murakami, Alan Moore, Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc. And, due to movies such as: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pan’s Labyrinth, Akira, etc. Toward the end of the 20th century, other formats of literature and visual entertainment such as comics, graphic novels, manga, video games and music were becoming more popular and expansive. Imports from around the world—i.e. Japan, India, Spain, etc.—have presented popular works of these genres to fans as well. 

            Before the 2000s—I want to say around the 1970s—an emergence of works were presented and released to the public. Besides the Harry Potter Phenomenon and The Lord of the Rings movies, there was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Matrix, and the continued book releases by Stephen King, Anne Rice and Robert Jordan. In addition, video games were growing in popularity and in addition to Mario, Sonic and Zelda there were Final Fantasy, Resident Evil and Shin Megami Tensei. Even those who weren’t reading the books, watching the TV shows or movies, or playing the video games were exposed to fantasy, science fiction and horror. Yet, why did some people prefer Harry Potter over The Lord of the Rings? What was it about Laurell K. Hamilton’s books that had some readers prefer her books over Anne Rice’s? What is it about Shin Megami Tensei, which has several spinoffs—including Persona—that has more of a cult fan base that players find appealing? 

            What I’m getting at is: how would you describe a book like The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the Dragon Quest video game series (besides Japanese role-playing games, or JRPGs), or even the Batman comics? Yes, one is a Young Adult novel, one is a JRPG, and the last is a superhero comic book series; but, aren’t there other genres to classify these works besides their marketing ones? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is a blend of fantasy, science (fiction), religion and philosophy—what did you expect from an Oxford professor? Dragon Quest is a JRPG with elements from the fantasy and adventure genres. Batman—one of the oldest and greatest superhero series of all-time—is a gritty and dark story about a traumatized man who uses his wealth and his wits to go up against the most dangerous criminals in his city. Nowadays, we would consider Batman to be a psychological thriller superhero series with elements of grimdark. Then again, with the recent success of the TV shows Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, there were many non-readers and fans who said things like, “I don’t like fantasy, but I love Game of Thrones,” or “I don’t like zombies, but The Walking Dead is a great show,” etc. Yes, those shows were media adaptations, which are examples of fantasy and dystopia books that “divert” from “traditional” or “familiar” tropes. However, there are fans of those tropes who are not interested in neither the TV show nor the books. So, why are those the exceptions? They are NOT!

            Speculative fiction is a term that is being used more and more in order to describe literature and media that fall under the “traditional” genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and comics. According to Marek Oziewicz, speculative fiction, “includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales and more,” (3). In other words, speculative fiction includes: urban fantasy, mythological fantasy, zombies, paranormal, space operas, metaphysical, silkpunk, occult, military, historical, romance, etc., etc. Any and all of the genres and subgenres makeup this term.

            So why do some people—authors, writers, readers, critics, academics, fans—use this term? It’s because there are times when a medium either has more than two genres associated within it or displays aspects of speculative fiction that doesn’t fall under any of the “fixed” genres. For example, the Super Mario Bros. franchise is a video game series classified under both “action/adventure” and “platformer,” but could it be categorized in the fantasy genre due to the levels being in an imaginary world, or could it fall under horror or paranormal due to the ghosts and the skeletons, or even science fiction, especially in the context of the Super Mario Galaxy games? In this case, the term speculative fiction would fit best for this gaming franchise. I should mention that I’m not the one who should be recategorizing video games. Then again, this is proof that the term speculative fiction is becoming both recognizable and interchangeable. 

            Speculative fiction seems to become the more acceptable them to use when explaining works and forms of non-mimetic fiction without listing all of the many subgenres associated with it. Recent examples include The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The first has been categorized under fantasy, science fiction, dystopian literature and magic realism (the last one was on Amazon); and, the second has been categorized under fantasy, mythology, magic realism and historical fiction. Which is easier: listing all of those genres and subgenres in a description, or saying speculative fiction containing elements of certain genres and subgenres such as: a story about the end of the world and Mayan Gods during the Jazz Age? While speculative fiction is an umbrella term, many of us have been using it as a shortcut to explain a collection of books, films and video games. 

            Another factor surrounding speculative fiction concerns education and academia. How many of you remember reading Edgar Allan Poe and/or Turn of the Screw by Henry James in school and in college? How many of you remember reading The House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Haroun and the Sea of Stories in school or in college? And, how many of you remember reading one of the many dystopian books: Lord of the Flies, A Handmaiden’s Tale, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, Brave New World, etc., in school and in college? Now, how many fantasy, fairy tales, and myths and legends were assigned to you after primary/elementary school? Keep in mind, there are courses and electives about these genres in college, but not everyone gets to take those classes (I was lucky enough to do so). Without going into too much detail, I’ve had disputes about fantasy literature with a few academic professors. Some of them believe that fantasy has no place in higher education except for in Children’s and Adolescent Literature (i.e. teaching, library science). However, scholars are responsible for some of the most recognized works in fantasy. Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman were Oxford professors. In addition, there are academic scholars who study and write books and articles about fantasy, science fiction and horror such as: Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn, John Grant, Nnedi Okorafor, John Clute, Jack Zipes and Tzvetan Todorov. This history and the study of these genres are just as essential as reading the fiction. I hate to say it, but speculative fiction seems to be the “safer” and the “more acceptable” term to use when it comes to discussing these genres. 

            So, why do I use the term speculative fiction? My simplest answer is because it signifies all of the genres I enjoy to read, to watch, to write and to game the most. Saying speculative fiction instead of the longlist of genres and subgenres is the easiest and the quickest way to describe certain works of media. If a book can be categorized in more than one genre or subgenre, then why not save the breakdown for a discussion with others in a fandom, or with authors and publishers? Most important, using the term speculative fiction does not limit the story of any medium to one genre. It allows a fan of a metaphysical book to say that “there’s elements of fantasy in this story,” or “the religion in this book is based on the myths and the history of this ancient civilization.” Speculative fiction is a term that allows an audience to observe the broader spectrum of a medium with similar beginnings and interconnecting styles of storytelling. However, there will continue to be moments where a book is categorized as “hard sci-fi,” a video game is of the “horror” genre, and Disney continues to fracture fairy tales. This is the new Golden Age of Speculative Fiction so we might as well enjoy everything that is presented to us while opening the doors for an open interpretation. 

            Thank you for reading my post(s), following my blog and my social media pages! Here’s to many more posts in the future and to several open discussions! Please like and comment here or on my other posts; and, be sure to check out the following references about our favorite genre(s). 

                                                                        References

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy. Cambridge University Press, 2012.  

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Martin, Philip. A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment. Crickhollow Books, 2009.

Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, March 2017, p.1-22. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78

Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009.