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: “Vita Nostra”

Metamorphosis: #1: Vita Nostra

By: Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Translated (English) by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Published: 2007 in Russia & Ukrainian; November 13, 2018 in the U.S.

Genre: Metaphysical, Speculative Fiction, Psychological, Bildungsroman 

Winner of the PocKoH 2008

Vita nostra brevis est,                                                 Our life is brief,

Brevi finietur;                                                             Soon it will end;

Venit mors velociter,                                                   Death comes quickly,

Rarit nos atrociter,                                                     Snatches us cruelly,

Nemini parcetur!                                                        No one is spared!

                                                                                                                       (Part One).

            I know I am late in writing this review but it’s here now. This book was my favorite book of 2018 and I’ve been raving about this book to anyone who would listen. I’ve been begging the publisher—Harper Voyager—for the translation of the other books written by this husband and wife duo. Vita Nostra is a novel that serves as a reminder that the speculative fiction genre has no limits and contains a reading experience that will have you question your limitations as to what is possible. 

            Alexandra Samokhina, or Sasha, is on summer vacation with her mother at the beach. She is looking forward to this trip before her senior year in high school in which, she plans to focus on her studies and to attend a university to study philology (the study of language in oral and written historical sources). Yet, before the 1st day of the trip can amount to more than a quick swim, Sasha notices a man in a “dark denim suit” watching her. At first, she shakes it off, but a few days later, Sasha sees him whenever she’s in town. From there Sasha experiences a few bouts of strange activity, but this only gains more unwanted attention. After many run-ins with the man, Sasha is given a task to perform, which she completes. Whenever, she doesn’t complete the task, someone close to her suffers the consequences. After her summer vacation, Sasha is given another task to complete each day throughout the school year. Meanwhile, Sasha’s mother starts seeing a man named Valentin. As expected from any adolescent, Sasha is going through academic pressures and a changing relationship with her mother. By the time she has graduated, Sasha’s grades have dropped, she doesn’t get into the university she wanted to attend, and her mother has married Valentin. However, because kept completing her “tasks,” Sasha is accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa, and the man—whose name is Farit Kozhennikov—is to be her advisor. Once at the school, Sasha—and her classmates—attend classes, follow strict rules, and complete their homework or face the consequences. Similar to any university, first year students have to adapt to all of the changes and study methods at the Institute. The difference is failure is not accepted and even the best students falter from time-to-time, even Sasha. Sasha studies and studies, and while she slowly comprehends her lessons and unlocks her mind to a new way of thinking, her punishments are as strange and as brutal as you can imagine. The Institute’s program lasts for 3 years, and then the students take their graduate final in order to “move on” to the graduate program. Sasha and all of the students at the Institute fear what happens if they fail, so they all study and perform as well as they can. Sasha realizes that she is outperforming her classmates to the point where she is not only at the top of her class, but also adapts to the Institute’s expectations. Due to these accomplishments, not only does Sasha becomes isolated from her peers, but also becomes more distant from her mother. Sasha’s mother, stepfather and friends develop in a more casual way. Sasha’s development is as complex as the story, but it is intriguing to read how she deals with life inside and outside the Institute. 

            The plot in Vita Nostra is the type of education being implemented at the Institute of Special Technologies through Sasha. The fact that this is the first book in the Metamorphosis series, should provide some hints, but not enough for readers to guess what will happen. Sasha is university student, which means she is learning how to balance her studies with any free time she has. And, like other university students, Sasha struggles with her classes and even misses a few of them due to exhaustion. Yet, she continues because she doesn’t want her mother to suffer for her failures. Eventually, Sasha not only grasps the meaning and the structure of her classes and her one-on-one sessions, but also exceeds beyond the expectations of her professors to the point where they have to set some rules for her to follow, so she does NOT get carried away with what she’s managed to accomplish so far. Sasha goes from struggling student to one that must be monitored so that she maintains control of herself. Sasha becomes so accomplished she becomes isolated from her peers. The subplot in this novel is the relationships Sasha struggles to maintain throughout her time at the Institute. While she remains friends with some of the other students, Sasha does all she can to hang on to her relationship with her mother. While Sasha is struggling with her studies, her mother is enjoying her new marriage (and later on a new baby). Sasha’s mother asks her constantly about leaving Torpa, but Sasha knows it’s best to remain there for her family’s safety, and to keep learning. The plot and the subplot converge around Sasha and everything she’s learning at the Institute, and its costs. She unlocks skills her professors want from their students. Once Sasha understands her potential and her skills, she cannot stop learning more. This imposes a new level of coercion set on her by her professors and her advisors. 

            The narrative in Vita Nostra is told from Sasha’s point-of-view and follows her growth from a candidate to a third year at the Institute. The book is in 3 parts, but there are no chapters. Instead, there are breaks that indicate when something else is occurring in Sasha’s life. This reflects the continuation of life of the characters and having chapters would disrupt the narrative. These breaks within the narrative allow readers to follow the story easily. This is because the narrative—while told in present time in stream-of-consciousness—there are moments where the sequence changes over to what may seem like a flashback but is actually a “do over” of these events. While this method of narration is objective—for it is essential for the novel—it presents Sasha to be a reliable, yet flawed, narrator because readers realize the extent of Sasha’s studies and accomplishments. Even before Sasha is accepted into the Institute, readers notice the beginnings of her change of her narration throughout the narration. Each part represents each year of Sasha’s time in Torpa, and the narration changes as Sasha changes; and, it is an experience unlike anything read before.  

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use fall under metaphysical fiction. Metaphysical fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which, “things like mind over matter, energy medicine, and places that which is beyond physical measurement, beyond the ordinary, into the very ordinary and mundane world we human beings inhabit,” (Newland, 2013). In other words, characters possess talents, skills, and/or abilities that defy physical laws, but only a small percentage of the world’s population have these talents, so the rest of the world remains ignorant to people like Sasha, the purpose of the Institute of Special Technologies, and the phenomenon everyone there undergoes. Vita Nostra is NOT magic realism! Magic(al) realism is a subgenre of speculative fiction where a story set in a real location and time with ordinary people living ordinary lives experience fantastical or magical elements that are a natural part of the characters’ lives but remain mundane and unexplained (Witte, 2015). For example, in Isabel Allende’s, The House of the Spirits, there are two sisters. One has green hair and the other one is a clairvoyant. No explanation is provided, the other characters are unfazed by these phenomenon, and the story continues. Readers are left to doubt whether or not those fantastic elements are real. In Vita Nostra, Sasha and her classmates possess abilities that are beyond the ordinary, but they are isolated from the rest of the world because it is not considered to be “ordinary.” Instead, Sasha and the other students are left to deal with these metaphysical experiences on their own at the Institute. The tone in Vita Nostra is the cost of learning and the cost of failure at the Institute, a form of terrorism. The mood is the bizarreness of everything the students experience and how Sasha (and readers) are intrigued to learn more. The authors provide a story of what is possible and what is actual in their own words while following the elements of the metaphysical fiction (sub)genre. 

            Vita Nostra is a translated work of fiction. The novel was first published in 2007 in Russian in Ukraine. The novel was very popular at the time of its release in Russia and won the PocKoH in 2008. Vita Nostra has been described as “a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian…is the anti-Harry Potter you didn’t know you wanted,” by The Washington Post. I find the description to be very accurate. Other readers, including some authors, enjoyed this book as much as I did. While not everyone will appreciate the elements of dark fantasy and metaphysical fiction, they cannot deny the parallels to other works of Russian speculative fiction such as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’ve been told by other readers that fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins will appreciate and enjoy Vita Nostra the most. I believe this novel will have more of a cult following which will transcend to a must read in due time. Meanwhile, the popularity of Vita Nostra will help with the expansion of the metaphysical fiction genre. This novel is the first in the Metamorphosis series. Digital, or Brevis Est was released in 2009 in Russian, and Migrant, or Brevi Finietur was released in 2010 in Russian. Both novels are follow-up standalone novels that follow other students at other Institutes who undergo their own metaphysical experiences. There have not been any news surrounding an upcoming translation of those books, but both The Burned Tower (1998) was released in English in 1999, and The Scar (1997)—the sequel to The Gate-Keeper (1994) and NOT released in English—was released in English in 2012. The next English translated book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is titled Daughter from the Dark and it’ll be released in February 2020, and I can’t wait to read it!

            Vita Nostra is a unique read that will introduce readers to new authors and another subgenre of speculative fiction. The combination of breaking reality with this coming-of-age story will remind readers everywhere that no matter the genre, themes such as family dynamics and education are universal. The story alone is enough to capture your attention and decides when and how to answer the questions you and the protagonist want answered. The expectations readers will have from the authors will match the expectations Sasha’s professors have for her. The Institute of Special Technologies is listed alongside Hogwarts, Sinegard Academy, and the Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy as challenging and excelling educational institutes. I desire and I dread the existence of these academic institutions! 

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

                                                            List of Works Cited

Newland, Tahlia. “Guest Post: Setting the Stage: Visionary & Metaphysical Fiction.” Tahlia Newland, 23 January 2013, http://www.tahlianewland.com/guest-post-setting-the-stage-visionary-metaphysical-fiction

Witte, Michelle. “Elements of Magical Realism.” Michelle Witte: Read Write Edit, 29 September 2015, http://michellewittebooks.com/2015/09/elements-of-magical-realism