Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop
Warnings: sexual assault (non-consensual kissing and groping) and references to (threat of) rape, on-page childbirth scene, physical violence
The Girl in the Tower is a fitting sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale, taking Vasya into the wider world, and finally pulling on those threads that were tied into the plot in the previous, resulting in a well-paced, expansive tale of a girl struggling to find her own place in the world and being hounded by men trying to dictate what she does. After being labelled a witch, Vasya quit her village and becomes a traveler, disguised as a boy and thus free to be what she really wants to be. But while she is hiding and taking a place in the court, there are other machinations going on which may spell war for the Grand Prince and destruction of Moscow.
The story’s first two parts are different perspectives of the same timeline: one is about Olga’s and Sasha’s lives and the other about Vasya since she arrived at Morozko’s forest. It converges at the moment when she meets Sasha and the delicate game of Vasya’s pretense actually begins. While Sasha wants her to lay low until Olga and he and safely get her ‘boy’ identity out of the way to let her ‘girl’ identity enter the terem, Vasya is too full of her freedom to be fully cautious (she makes a lot of mistakes is all I’m saying, y’all, but I don’t blame her for it). Her confidence and bravery means she gets to become a friend of the Grand Prince, but it also puts a target on her back. Which the main antagonist of this book jumps on (its not Konstantin, who is still there in the book though, but someone worse) as an opportunity to have her. Vasya is also about to learn what she means to the chyerti and to Morozko himself.
Speaking of Morozko, the book does a wonderful slow burn of their relationship – and ties it in to the story Olga narrates at the start (I like that running theme going on with this series). He cannot love her, not as a mortal, and the book calls out the unequal nature of their relationship as he himself keeps things from her and tries to dictate what she ought to do. She also comes to term with her feelings for him, and his existence as a frost-demon and a death god. Vasya, torn between the wild nature of her soul and the expectations of her as a sister to Olga and Sasha, has to constantly choose between her own safety and happiness and theirs. Its a classic tale of a headstrong girl and the world constantly trying to stifle her and bind her, and a parallel is drawn between her and another ‘witch’ who was similarly tied. Even her brother and sister try to tie her down, and there’s a line from Sasha that perfectly encapsulates the story of Vasya:
The quick brain, the strong limbs were there: fiercely, almost defiantly present, though concealed beneath her encumbering dress. She was more feminine than she had ever been, and less. Witch. The word drifted across his mind. We call such women so, because we have no other name.
As for the plot, I loved it much better this time around because it does feel like the plot threads all tie into the story (except for a couple of lines where they are building up suspense and foreshadowing the next book), keeping the pace tight and the story engaging. On an emotional scale, it was hitting some good notes and I was entirely invested in the characters. The world-building was richer in this, as we see Moscow through Vasya’s and Sasha’s eyes, but also see slightly the politics of Moscow and the brewing tensions in the city as it prepares for a holy festival. And finally, as a cherry on the cake, there are some magnificent magical horses, and a thrilling horse race you shouldn’t miss!
Previous book in The Winternight trilogy