Where the wild girl goes...

I had impulse-bought the second and third books in Katherine Arden's WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY years ago after being enchanted by her modern take on Russian fairy tale setting. After way too long, I finally got to the middle book in this series. 

4/5 While the story isn't always as tight, gripping, or original as I wanted it to be, this series continues to be an absolute masterclass in atmosphere and manages to be just as compelling as THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE.

This story once again centers around the brave Vasya. She's grown into a young woman and is faced with the difficult realities of that as she tries to find her place in a world that does not accept her as she is. Solovey, her trusty animal companion, bears her across the harsh Russian winter landscape until the pair find themselves in the overwhelming city of Moscow. There are a lot of intense survival sequences with this pair and some delightful fish-out-of-water moments as they enter into more developed settlements for the first time in their lives. Vasya's monk brother, Sasha, gets a lot more time to develop here and I actually found it really fascinating to see how him and Vasya are quite similar in some ways. The mystical Morozko is also explored with much greater depth, though many things about him remain mysterious. I found some of his scenes to be really beautifully written with some wonderful mental imagery of him as more of a magnificent force of nature rather than a man. The hot-headed Dmitri and illustrious Vasyan were great additions to the cast as well as interesting foils for one another. Father Konstantin makes a less-than triumphant return as well. Though he's sidelined for most of the story, I'm interested to see what role he will have to play in the next book. Overall, the characters in this cast continue to be quite an iconic bunch.

The whimsical fairy tale setting is once again offset by a deep heaviness that covers all things in this story. Vasya struggles with her identity as she pulls a Mulan and pretends to be a young boy for her own protection. Sasha and Olga mourn the news about their father and fear for their sister should she be discovered. Morozko becomes much more human than he intended as his complex and antagonistic romance with Vasya develops. The central conflict this time around is also much larger in scale with Arden delving deeper into the delicate politics of Medieval Russia than THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE had room for. Villages are raided and the fate of kingdoms sometimes sit upon a razor's edge making the stakes feel that much higher. Beneath all of this is the unseen world of domovi who languish and diminish as Moscow gives up it's old, pagan ways in favor of Catholicism. Arden's disdain for Christianity (and perhaps organized religion in general) is once again quite apparent although I felt as though she tried (without success) to mask this element of the world building through giving us more benevolent characters within the church. Once again, I failed to necessarily see why I should find these Russian demons as preferable aside from the fact that they aren't usually as inclined to point and scream "witch!" whenever a woman behaves in a way that society deems odd. I do still find the socio-political aspect of this religious struggle between the old ways and the new faith to be interesting though. I also think that the way that the more mystical creatures are represented is brilliant and there are some that are truly terrifying (I'm looking at you, Midnight!). 

Things slowed down a bit for me somewhere in the middle-ish part of the book where these more magical elements are somewhat muted in favor of Vasya just trying to maintain her identity as a boy. I didn't think that this story did anything to make that point of conflict particularly compelling or suspenseful since it felt very similar to Mulan or really any story where a girl poses as a boy. I also had some mixed feelings about her relationship with Morozko. It is interesting in that Morozko's intentions are somewhat ambiguous to the point where I don't know if I should be routing for them, but I also just felt like Arden took the YA trope of a teenage girl falling for an older guy to an extreme with Morozko having lived for literal centuries. Yes, there were shades of this in THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE, I guess I just felt like this subplot was far more prominent this time around. 

The Russian landscape continues to be as enchanting as it is brutal. From Morzko's hidden home in the woods, to the various villages and settlements Vasya visits, and finally to the palaces and towers of Moscow, this fairy tale world never gets old. I continue to find myself utterly lost in this book's expertly crafted atmosphere. I have never read a book that gave me such vivid feelings of winter's cold or the warmth of a fire/oven. The supernatural elements are all handled in such a way that the different spirits feel like they are a part of the land itself, yet also entirely otherworldly. I could probably spend a whole book inside of Morozko's house and never get bored given how Arden handles these elements (though that would certainly fly a bit in the face of her themes around freedom and embracing one's more wild side). I can't wait to see what other aspects and corners of this world are explored in the final book of this trilogy. 

One minor complaint I had was that the layout of Moscow confused me, particularly during the story's climax where I had a hard time figuring out where exactly Olya's tower was in relation to Dmitri's palace. Having a map of some kind, especially for this city would have been really nice, although the geography isn't all that impactful or hard to follow much for most of the story. 

These books have some beautiful trade paperback editions that look great together on a shelf. The fonts and formatting are all nice and I love the divider pages that distinguish each act/part of the story. I also think it's neat that the back of the book provides some bonus content on Russian names, topics for conversation, and some lovely notes from the author. 

THE GIRL IN THE TOWER is a highly worthwhile follow up to the first book in this trilogy. It expands and develops both the world and characters while leaving some intriguing hints at things yet to come. I very much look forward to finishing this series. 

(+) A truly unique sense of atmosphere
(+) Amazing use of Russian folklore
(+) Vasya grows in interesting ways as a character
(+) Some very strong opening sections
(+) Medieval Moscow is vibrantly depicted and explored in detail
(+) Solovey felt more interesting to me in this book
(+) Some awesome antagonists
(+) An exciting conclusion with so many twists and hints at things to come
(-) The middle section of the book dragged a little for me
(-) I sometimes felt a little lost with the layout/geography of Moscow
(-) Some of the tropes felt a little more pronounced this time around
(-) I still don't really appreciate Arden's thinly veiled disdain for Christianity


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