The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden already has garnered high praise and (to date) solid 5 star reviews on Amazon, just as did its predecessor The Bear and the Nightingale. The books are set in early medieval Muscovy ruled by princes under Tatar overlords. The people are deeply religious, superstitious, uneducated, yet as Arden shows us, admirable.
I enjoyed reading about early medieval Rus/Muscovy in both novels as it is an era and locale we seldom see in fiction. The people must be fierce and hardy to survive the long cold winters, muddy springs and falls. As the author noted, Vasya knows nothing of luxury. To her being warm, having enough to eat, having dry socks are luxurious. Ideas of beautiful furniture, wall hangings that are as much decoration as aids to warmth, of good food all winter, these are as fantastical as snowdrops in January.
We are meant to admire and identify with main character Vasya, the girl who found the snowdrops in winter, but I didn’t find her likable.
Vasya has dilemmas:
- She can see the small household spirits, the ones in the bathhouse, the oven, the stable that almost no one else can, which in a superstitious age marked her as horribly different, a witch.
- Vasya is a girl in an era when a high-born girl either married or entered the convent. Vasya wants neither of these; she wants adventure, she wants to travel.
- She refuses to compromise or to decide what to do.
Reading the first half of the novel was like wading through icy cold water. We know nothing good can come of Vasya’s determination, there is no good ending possible. Once Vasya meets Prince Dmitrii and she and her brother Sasha lie to him that she is a young man, she has even fewer options and none are palatable.
Prince Dmitrii grows in this sequel. He had a small role in The Bear and the Nighingale, portrayed as young, somewhat self-indulgent. In this sequel Dmitrii acts as a prince. He routs bandits, tries to protect his people from avaricious Tatars, abhors lies.
The relationship between frost demon Morosko and Vasya is frustrating to read. It’s obvious something is going on with Vasya’s sapphire and that Morosko feels more for Vasya than he admits or that he believes he should. Vasya too has strong feelings but is confused as to what those are exactly. She is intrigued by Morosko, is grateful to him, enjoys his company but finds him difficult and opaque and she does not love him.
I don’t care for teen fantasy novels where the 16 year old idiot girl captivates the 2000 year old vampire/godlet/demon/what-have-you because it’s just stupid. To Arden’s credit the Vasya/Morosko semi relationship is believable – it has a quid pro quo at its heart although Vasya doesn’t know it – but the relationship still suffers from the underlying problems that Vasya is young and naive and doesn’t know her own heart.
My overall problem with The Girl in the Tower is that it is not enjoyable reading. Every page brings the characters closer to doom. We know there is no happy ending, that nothing will be resolved – because the underlying problem cannot be solved – and that makes it difficult to read. Every page brought Vasya into more tanglements, more lies, more risk.
Vasya can not control herself while in Moscow, cannot follow her sister’s and brother’s commands to be quiet, to stay in the background. She takes a bad situation and made it far worse for herself and those she claims to love, just because she cannot control her curiosity, her bravado. I liked her less and less as the novel progressed.
This novel will get many accolades and probably awards, but I do not like it. The writing is excellent; the setting is unusual and intriguing, but the unlikable heroine Vasya and miserable options she makes for herself make it heavy going. In fact, had this not been a NetGalley where I’m obliged to write a review, I would have put the book aside and not finished.
If you are familiar with The Two Towers, the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkein, you know that it too has a sense of doom, of bad choices and no good options, of happy endings seemingly out of reach. Yet Tolkein manages to create a sense of hope, with excellent characters and a plot that moves along enough to keep us happy, reading despite the overarching feeling of menace. Arden’s novel lacks those elements, leaving only the feeling of menace, of doom, of a foreboding future. Had I liked Vasya no doubt I’d like the novel, but as it stands, I do not.
How do I rate this? Do I give it high marks for the excellent writing, originality, strong sense of mood, great setting? Or rate lower because I do not enjoy it, do not like the character?
3 Stars. 2 Stars because I had to force myself to finish, 4 stars because of high quality writing