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)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “The Year of the Witching”

The Year of the Witching

By: Alexis Henderson

Published: July 21, 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Occult Fiction

            Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer, (Chapter Two). 

            Readers continue to be presented with several new books, many of them by debut authors. Every once in a while, a debut comes along that makes you wonder whether or not that book really is that author’s first book. Alexis Henderson is the latest author to gift readers with her dark fantasy and occult fiction novel, The Year of the Witching.

            Immanuelle Moore is the protagonist in this novel. She is almost 17 years-old and is the illegitimate granddaughter of the town’s midwife, Martha, and carpenter, Abram Moore. The circumstances surrounding her birth and her mother’s, Miriam, death remains a mystery even to her family. Her mother’s “love affair” with her father—Daniel Lewis Ward—an Outskirter, a group of people known for their ebony skin and their own religious practices, resulted with Immanuelle, her parents’ deaths, and her being ostracized by all of the denizens in Bethel. Her only companion is Leah, who is golden-haired, blue-eyed, and “religiously moral.” She is also about to become the latest of a slew of wives of the Prophet, the leader of Bethel. Immanuelle feels lonelier than ever before, especially because her family’s circumstances does not allow for her to have such aspirations. Meanwhile, the Darkwood—the forest that borders Bethel and is said to be the dwelling of four witches—seems to be calling to her, even though it’s forbidden to enter it. However, one night, circumstances lead Immanuelle to enter the Darkwood and to interacting with the witches who live there. Afterwards, she cannot help but feel like something bad is going to happen because of this encounter. Yet, Immanuelle has help from Ezra Ford, the Prophet’s son and successor, who does all he can to protect both Immanuelle and Bethel from the threats brought on by the inhabitants of the Darkwood. Even though Immanuelle is the protagonist, both Leah and Ezra are essential into the growth and the development she undergoes throughout the novel. All three adolescents question the roles they will have to play as both adulthood and dark magic threaten to consume them. And, Immanuelle has to determine whether or not she will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

            The plot of the novel explores the opposing forces of religion and the repercussions they have on individuals who practice them. Ezra is the Prophet’s son and heir, but he doesn’t believe in all of the societal practices his father preaches. Leah is Bethel’s “golden child” who is known for her beauty and her (religious) virtue, which makes her a suitable bride for the Prophet; and yet, she knows that no matter what happens, she cannot hope to go against the teachings of the Church. Immanuelle is the product of two religions and that has labeled her as both an outcast and a target of bullying by the members of the community. When she comes across her mother’s journal, she learns the truth behind her parents’ deaths and her family’s, and the Prophet’s, obsession with her, and her being drawn to the witches. All of these circumstances lead to plagues arriving and afflicting the town of Bethel. There are two subplots in this novel. The first one deals with the concept of history and religion. Just because someone does not practice your faith and/or has different views on the same religion does not make them a heretic. At the same time, the history of one’s religion is no reason for the mistreatment of those who practice the same faith. The second subplot investigates the influence parents have on their children. Immanuelle is Bethel’s reminder of Miriam’s sins, which were believed to be based on the sins of her parents, the grandparents who raised Immanuelle to follow the teachings of the Father. However, if Immanuelle was raised the same way as her mother, then how and why did her mother “go astray,” and what does that mean for Immanuelle, her family, and the town of Bethel? Both subplots are necessary for the plot’s development because they get to the center of the conflict and how it affects everyone in Bethel.

            The narrative is told from Immanuelle’s point-of-view. Readers follow along with her stream-of-consciousness as she figures out how to stop the plagues and to learn the truth about her parents and the real cause of the plagues. The story moves from the present to the past and to the present again as Immanuelle learns of the past from her mother’s journal, from her grandparents, and from Ezra through the Church’s archives. Immanuelle’s discoveries and reactions to them, as well as her fear of being accused of witchcraft, make her a reliable narrator. The narrative focuses on time throughout the story. This presents a sense of urgency that the protagonist faces throughout the narrative. All of these elements make the narrative engaging and easy to follow.

            The style that Alexis Henderson uses is one that is familiar, yet different. The theme of hypocrisy in religion is not new, but the author not only adds the historical aspects of the racism within religion—particularly Christianity, but also delves into two warring faiths and the long-term effects they have on their followers overtime. In addition, the themes of ageism, sexism, abuse of power and blind devotion—which can be found in just about every religion ever to exist in human history—make for the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone who is devoted to their faith. All of the allusions to Biblical names and the tales from the Old and the New Testaments give further insight into the story and what readers should expect from it. The mood in this novel is foreboding. The knowing of misfortune has been on the horizon for the town of Bethel for generations, and it erupts all at once due to both an act innocence and due to generations of malice and corruption. The tone in this novel is rebellion. In this story, rebellion is a double-edged sword; and, this is because those who rebel quietly do not fare any better compared to those who rebel openly. Nevertheless, allowing vices to continue can lead to the destruction of a community and/or religion either from internal or external forces. 

            The appeal for The Year of the Witching will be positive. I was able to read an eARC of this novel, and I read it in 3½ days! Not to mention, this is the author’s debut novel! Even if the subgenres of dark fantasy and occult fiction are not your “go to” reads, you have to admire the story Alexis Henderson put together. Fans of both Alice Hoffman and Louisa Morgan will enjoy this book the most. It needs to be mentioned that due to the religious themes in this novel, fans of both His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will find this book appealing as well. The novel blends fantasy, the occult, religion, with a touch of gothic to make this novel a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. This novel has lasting appeal because of the story the author was willing to present as her debut. The Year of the Witching is a standalone novel, but I wouldn’t mind either a continuation or a companion book to this one!

            The Year of the Witching is a fast-paced immersive coming-of-age story, one that will surpass your expectations once you realize that it is a debut novel! While the story of rebellion in a religious and an oppressive society is not new, the idea of witches being real and using religious tropes for revenge is (somewhat) novel and very entertaining. Whether or not this book is to your taste in literature, you will appreciate this new talent and her future books. 

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