I loved The Bear and the Nightingale, and rather than doing my usual plunge straight into the sequel, I have been holding off on this on to try to extend and savor the story more. However, once I saw Aquillia’s review of The Girl in the Tower, I decided I was done waiting since I wanted to be able to have a discussion.
Looking back, I have noticed that while everyone seems to like The Bear and the Nightingale, the responses to certain details have been very different. For example, narfna read it more as a historical fantasy while I viewed it as a fairy tale grounded in history. Aquillia would have appreciated more complexity to the stepmother and the way the novel viewed the relationship between Christianity and the old ways. I liked that the novel added detail to the stepmother beyond the simple wicked stepmother trope (though I agree it would have been nice to see some more reversal of the role in the later part of the novel), and actually liked the way the Christian zealot tried to smash out the old ways, even while recognizing it as a bit of a trope.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that the follow up also has diverse, though generally favorable, reactions. I probably fall closer to TheShitWizard than Aquillia on this because while I enjoyed it, it was not quite as magical to me as the first one. In fact, if I thought of the first one as a fairy tale, I would have to defer to narfna’s classification of historical fantasy to classify this one. I think at least part of that is due to setting. While The Bear and the Nightingale took place in a small community near the forest in the north that felt almost timeless, with the historical context coming from the glimpses of the royal court, this one was more grounded in time and place, being predominantly set in the city of Moscow. It’s hard to keep that fairy tale feel when you are in a city rather than a rural setting.
Like the last novel, this one starts with the telling of a fairy tale, the story of the snow maiden, a girl created from snow, magic and a wish who gives up her immortality for love and connection. Now it is Vasya’s older sister Olga that has taken on the role of story teller to her children and the visiting noble women of the court. This story ends up influencing the overall narrative though the parallels between the main plot and the fairy tale are not as strong as they were for The Bear and the Nightingale and its opening story, and is more related to character developments.
After leaving her village at the end of previous novel due to her new reputation as a witch, Vasya decides she wants to see the world. Though, Morozco mocks her decision, he eventually provides her with the tools and equipment she will need to travel and even helps her a bit along the way since he keeps finding himself drawn to her despite himself. Eventually, she comes across a raided village and promises to find the stolen children. Her rescue mission leads her straight to her brother, Sasha, and into the politics of the Rus’ court. The fact that she has been traveling as a boy to keep herself safe, unfortunately, entangles her brother and her sister in a lie and masquerade.
While Vasya kept running into restrictions in the village due to her gender and her inability to be like everyone else, as she quickly discovers in the city, these restrictions were nothing compared to life as a woman in the city. Her beloved sister has basically become a girl in the tower (so many meanings to that title), and all the other higher born women also are restricted from public view, leading very private lives in their own respective towers. Posing as a boy, Vasya experiences new freedoms, and discovers that the same personality traits that were seen as bad for a girl, are celebrated and rewarded in a boy. Having tasted freedom, Vasya knows more than ever that she cannot conform to society’s expectations, despite any disappointments this might cause her siblings.
As excited as Vasya was to see Sasha and Olga, Arden does not make this an easy reunion. It’s been ten years since they have seen each other, and the events of the last novel have shaped Vasya while also sounding unbelievable. How to reconnect with siblings when she can’t even begin to tell the truth, and must frame things in such a way that they blame her for their father’s death? While Irina and Alyosha were supportive of their sister even as they did not understand her, the barrier between the siblings in this one, despite their love for each other, adds an extra touch of sadness to the story.
While the novel continues to have magical elements, the novel focused much more on the reality of women’s lives and expectations, and the intrigues and backstabbing of the court. Arden weaves an engaging tale but I liked the smaller story of The Bear and the Nightingale which was a nice slow burn spanning almost two decades. While this one has similar slowly paced beginning, exploring relationships, emotions and gender dynamics, the last third of the novel almost felt like a different book because the reveals came fast with little room to breathe from one revelation to the next. I look forward to seeing how this trilogy wraps up though – I expect it will take a step back to the more rural setting and away from court politics but I could be wrong.