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: “Daughter from the Dark”

Daughter from the Dark

By: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Published: 2006 in Russian; February 11, 2020 in English

Translated by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Genre: Metaphysical/Speculative Fiction/Psychological

            Aspirin had to admit—he was his own worst enemy. He’d brought it on himself: the first time when he did not leave the girl alone where she was, and the second time when he refused to give her back to his camo-clad guest,(Tuesday).

            As you know, Vita Nostra is one of my favorite books of all-time. This translated book—from Russian and translated to English by Julia Meitov Hersey—introduced some readers and I to the metaphysical fiction genre—that is NOT a graphic novel—and to the creative minds of the authors: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Daughter from the Dark is NOT the next book in the Metamorphosis series, but a standalone story about a girl from another dimension, and the man who is assigned to be her guardian. 

            The main protagonist is Alexey Igorevich Grimalsky, who goes by his radio sobriquet—Aspirin, is a radio DJ host and a nightclub DJ who lives his life carefree with small comforts that keep him satisfied. One Sunday evening, he finds a young girl shivering in an alley holding a teddy bear. He asks the girl where her parents are before they are attacked by a group of hoodlums and their Pitbull; but, before anything can happen, a large shadow appears on the wall (the teddy bear?) looms over everyone and attacks the dog in self-defense. Shaken up and confused, Aspirin brings the girl into his apartment as a gesture of goodwill. However, the next morning (Monday), the girl refuses to leave or to say anything about herself or where she came from. Then, a stranger appears at his door with intention to take the girl back with him. When Aspirin refuses to let the girl—Alyona—leave with the man, Aspirin finds himself holding a birth certificate stating that he’s the father, which he is not. In a blink of an eye, Aspirin goes from carefree man to father, and it seems everyone else around him believes Alyona is his daughter from Pervomaysk. At the same time, Alyona has no intention in playing the role of “daughter.” Instead of attending school, she cleans the house and listens to CDs (remember those?). Alyona left her home so that she can find her brother, who is a musician. Alyona not only brought her teddy bear, “Mishutka,” but also “special” music strings. Her plan is to learn how to play the violin so that she can play a song, which will call out to him. That means Aspirin has to register Alyona for music lessons, to buy her a violin, and to put up with her aloofness and her eccentricities: feeding Mishutka, ignoring her pain and illness, making “claims” about other people, etc. Meanwhile, Aspirin sees Alyona as an annoying houseguest who keeps interfering with his life and daily lifestyle: going to work, attending parties, hooking up with women, etc. And, Alyona views Aspirin as a coward who is nice but afraid of commitment and wastes his musical gifts. The two characters become more like college roommates than father and daughter, but that living arrangement seems to work for them. Neither Aspirin nor Alyona develop much as characters, but they do demonstrate growth with help from Whiskas—Aspirin’s friend and colleague—and, Irina—Aspirin’s neighbor. Then again, complex characters (and people) don’t change their behaviors overnight, it takes several months. 

            The plot of Daughter from the Dark is straightforward. Aspirin becomes the guardian for 11-year-old Alyona and must learn how to put her needs before his own. It sounds like something from a movie or a T.V. sitcom, but that’s where the similarities end. This leads to the two subplots. The first one involves Alyona’s music. She learns how to play the violin at a rate in which she’s called a music prodigy, but she quits music school so she can focus on learning to play the song which will call her brother and send him home. The second subplot is Aspirin’s slow maturity during the duration of Alyona’s stay. Aspirin considers his music gifts more and more. He even starts a long-term relationship with Irina instead of hooking up with random women. Yes, Aspirin tries to get Alyona to leave more than once, but he learns how to deal with her and everyone who gets involved with her: their neighbors, her music teacher, etc. These subplots are essential for the plot because they explain the reasons and the reactions to Alyona’s unexpected arrival. It is obvious Aspirin doesn’t have a daughter, so allowing the subplots to become part of the plot is necessary and it allows for it to go at an appropriate rate so that the story seems believable. 

            The narrative is told from Aspirin’s point-of-view and his stream-of-consciousness. So not only do readers experience everything from Aspirin’s perspective, but also his thoughts as everything happens around him in real-time. Given the strange occurrences involving Mishutka, Alyona’s music and birth certificate, and the changes involving Alyona’s identity, Aspirin—for all of his flaws—is a reliable narrator. This is because several moments throughout the narrative leave us asking the same questions Aspirin asks himself: What’s happening? Is this real? Where did Alyona come from? Is Mishutka really a teddy bear? Readers are able to follow the narrative because they understand how confused Aspirin is because they feel the same way. The book is in 3 parts, which presents the length of time both Aspirin and Alyona live together. Part I is in days and Parts II and III are in months. These breakdowns are marked by what happens to both characters during those days and months. This sequence is significant because it illustrates ALL of the changes that occur around Aspirin and Alyona. 

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use follows the rules of metaphysical fiction, but it’s written and presented differently. In Vita Nostra, a handful of individuals possessed talents which could bend reality and defy physical laws. In Daughter from the Dark, there are several moments where the extraordinary occurs, and there are several witnesses who experience those moments, but they react with discomfort and questioning whether or not that event actually happened. At the same time, the longer Alyona remains in Aspirin’s world (our world), her identity alters to match the “cover story” she and Aspirin came up with. So not only does Alyona have a time limit to learning the song and finding her brother, but also there is a time limit concerning Alyona’s connection to her world and when or if she’ll be able to go back there. This type of metaphysical fiction trope is similar to the theory about parallel worlds and alternate dimensions. The novel, and the authors, demonstrate what could happen if one or two “other worldly” beings find their way into another world. The mood in this novel is imperfection. Alyona points out constantly how imperfect our world is, which it is, and how it is inspiration for the creative mind. The tone is how a gifted individual can use creativity to seek perfection in an imperfect world. Aspirin, Alyona, Alyona’s brother and all creative artists seek their art in our imperfect world. Music is the central theme in Daughter from the Dark and the authors do an amazing job incorporating music and its techniques and truths within the story.

            The appeal surrounding Daughter from the Dark will continue to present English readers and fans of speculative fiction what they’ve been missing out on. I will reiterate that this novel is NOT the next book in the Metamorphosis series! This novel is a separate story about characters and metaphysical tropes. In other words, don’t read Daughter from the Dark expecting Vita Nostra! Readers of speculative fiction should know better than to expect identical stories form the same author! Daughter from the Dark is its own example of metaphysical fiction and translated work of speculative fiction. This novel is another great addition for the canon, and we have Julia Meitov Hersey to thank again for taking the time to translate the book. And, she is already translating another book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and I can’t wait to read it! Readers and fans of Vita Nostra and Middlegame by Seanan McGuire will not be disappointed with this novel!       

            Daughter from the Dark is the latest translated work by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and the focus is on music instead of a hidden school. The narrative and the plot are more relatable and more action-paced than Vita Nostra, but fans of metaphysical fiction will enjoy this book the most. This novel is the most down-to-Earth mind-bending work by the husband and wife duo so far, and the books keep coming! Anyone who is interested in reading anything by them should start with this book. For everyone else, it’s not at the same level in terms of genre, but the experience is worth reading. Now, all I have to do is wait for the next book to be translated into English!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).