Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

34050917The Girl in the Tower is the second book in the Winternight Trilogy.
The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favorite books of 2017, but this? This was a mess.

The problem with predictable books isn’t only that you already know what’s going to happen. It’s that the protagonist doesn’t, even when the answers are obvious. Predictable political intrigue makes your whole book feel cheap.
Here, the foreshadowing was heavy-handed. I already knew what was going to happen, there were so many hints I wonder how the characters didn’t understand it until the ending.

Vasya was so headstrong it was irritating to read. And I don’t mean “I won’t join a convent” kind of headstrong, I mean “I will challenge anyone and anything and intrude in things I don’t understand” kind of headstrong. Why?
I know why. The book needed a plot, but when your plot is driven by the characters making one terrible decision after another, you have a problem.
I still like her. One of my favorite aspects of this book were the characters, when there wasn’t miscommunication involved. I loved the family dynamics here: Vasya’s siblings want to help her, but what they want for her isn’t necessarily what she wants, and her just existing could get all of them in trouble.
Vasya and Solovey’s bond was still my favorite part of the book. And I really liked the romance – the scenes set in the forest were the best ones. But there weren’t enough of them: most of the book was set in Moscow, and that just didn’t feel as magical or atmospheric.

For most of this book, Vasilisa is dressed as a boy, and calls herself Vasilii. I love reading about gender-non-conforming female characters, but here the crossdressing plotline was handled terribly.

it was predictable. Of course someone is going to discover she’s not a boy. Someone is going to see her while she’s naked and notice that ~she’s actually a girl~. And guess what? It happened not once, but twice! Two naked reveal scenes!

all the unfortunate implications. The naked reveal scene is a transphobic trope; the author is using a transphobic narrative without exploring it in a book where there are no trans people. While I can understand that because it’s historical fiction (you could say that trans people are still more realistic than frost demons, but I understand), trans people today very much exist and are going to read your book. I hate when a book is clearly written with the assumption that a certain group of people is never going to pick it up.

it’s just not what I want to read. It’s “I want to throw the book across the room” unpleasant. No, I don’t want to read about a gender-non-conforming woman who is stripped in front of a crowd to demonstrate that ~she’s actually a girl~. Why would I want that.

Am I going to read the third book? Yes, because I loved the first one, and I still really like the characters and the writing. Also, both the badly-written political intrigue and the crossdressing plotline are wrapped up at the end of this book. But I’d like to pretend The Girl in the Tower didn’t happen.

My rating: ★★★

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Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy novel set in rural medieval Russia, and one of the best books to read during the winter.
It was the first book I read in 2017, and now it’s the first book I read in 2018 – its wintry atmosphere makes it the perfect book for the season.It feels like a dark fairytale, beautiful and magical, but not without its creepy aspects. Winter in Russia is not an easy season, and as an old threat rises due to the carelessness of men, so do the dead.

This book follows Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna and her family. She’s Pyotr Vladimirovich’s daughter, and she has the sight. She can see and speak with the chyerti (guardian spirits from Russian folklore), she can talks with horses, she has seen something terrible when she was a child exploring the wood. The Bear and the Nightingale is her story; you see her grow up, and you can’t not love her – she is a wild, magical girl living in a place where not conforming strictly to gender roles marks you as a witch. Everything gets worse when her devout stepmother and a new priest from Moscow come to the village.

The religious conflict is the heart of this book – because of Christianity, men are forgetting the old ways, leaving behind “paganism” and “fairytales”. They are not feeding the domovoi and the stables’ vazila. That makes them vulnerable to the monsters who live at the edge of the woods: upyry and something worse – the bear, who is Frost’s brother.

Frost himself is a significant character – he is Morozko, the winter king, the blue-eyed demon in the fairytale of Vasya’s childhood. I loved his scenes, and I hope to see more of him in The Girl in the Tower.
Other things I loved were the historical details and political intrigue. I want to see more of that too, and possibly also more of Vasya’s family. They were well-developed, but so were all the side characters, including the human antagonists (you understand them, even when you hate them) and Vasya’s animal companions. I mean, one of my favorite characters was a horse.

The writing was lovely – it wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be (yes, I always have this fear when it comes to historical fiction), and the atmosphere was perfect. This may be a slow-paced novel, but it’s also one of the very few books that managed to keep me awake at night during a reread because I didn’t want to stop. It’s that good.

I’ve heard that as a novel set in Russia written by an American author, this is very accurate (unlike… many others) but there is one thing that didn’t sit well with me. The author says this about the transliterations in the author’s note:

First, I sought to render Russian words in such a way as to retain a bit of their exotic flavor. This is the reason I rendered Константин as Konstantin rather than the more familiar Constantine, and Дмитрий as Dmitrii rather than Dmitri.

Look, I’m not Russian, so I don’t know how much of a big deal this is, but American authors: the “exotic flavor” isn’t a thing, and the word “exotic” is something you should delete from your vocabulary when you’re talking about people and cultures. It’s othering. Stop.

My rating: ★★★★¾