Welcome to Day Six of #WyrdAndWonder. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out my 2022 Kick-Off + Top 5 Fantasy Books Since Last Wyrd and Wonder post to get caught up on this wacky-wavy-inflatable celebration of the Fantasy genre.
Also check out my #WyrdAndWonder tag to see all the previous posts I’ve done during this event (and last year’s event too!)
Now, Day Six’s prompt is to celebrate an example of Mythic Fantasy. The example I chose to review is Katherine Arden’s The Girl in the Tower, book two in the Winternight Trilogy.
As I mentioned in my post about Bear and the Nightingale I’ve been waiting for books like these forever. Arden has clearly done her homework, and manages to bring an already wonderous (if perhaps little known) mythology, and make it even more enchanting, mixing in real history with the stuff of pure fairy tale. That she is able to do so has been an incredible and fantastic ride.
But . . .
I think we may have moved back one step in The Girl in the Tower.
As any sequel should, TGitT reveals more depth in what’s familiar from the last book (Vasya, Morozko, the domovoi, Father Konstantin sorta, Sasha and The Church), and pushes further into the unknown/wonderous (other spirits and fairy tale characters, Moscovian intrigue, Tartars, new evils). But while the world of TGitT is much bigger, somehow the stakes feel smaller than they were in The Bear in the Nightingale.
I’m not quite sure how to explain this further without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice to say, despite all of the supernatural elements of this story, the central conflict seemed to be between people.
The other piece which I felt was a step back for this story was that through most of it, Vasya pretends to be a man (or a boy really).
Now, I wrote and deleted a lot of text trying to find a way to express this correctly and figure out why this well loved trope didn’t work for me in Girl in the Tower. We’ve seen this trope (called Sweet Polly Oliver) many times before, and there are many examples of it being done super well, and being incredibly powerful. Disney’s Mulan comes to mind . . . another Disney show from my youth, Motocrossed, is another excellent example . . . She’s the Man is also great (lol).
So why not Girl in the Tower?
Well, considering some of the stories I just mentioned, it seems that much of the power from this trope comes from the transformation of the main character. At the beginning of these stories, some circumstance places them in this new role, which society believes they should not occupy, and then they spend the rest of the story proving to that society that they’re doing just fine. But I believe a crucial part of the character’s transformation as they do this, is at the beginning, deep inside, they also don’t believe they can do it either. With each new trial, they prove to themselves, along with everyone else that they are just as ‘good as the boys’.
In many ways, Vasya already fought this fight in Bear in the Nightingale. She already had her confidence up, and knew her worth. When she leaves Lesnaya Zemlya and goes into the broader world it felt off for her to suddenly cover up all of that confidence by disguising herself as a boy. When she draws attention to herself by challenging men in power, or racing horses etc. we don’t really doubt that she’ll pull through because we know what a badass she is. I don’t think Vasya really doubts it either.
And so we have this woman, breaking all these gendered barriers in an extremely traditional society, but we lack most of the power behind such actions because we’ve already seen her do it once, and I never really felt that Vasya believed for a second that she would fail. Again, bigger setting, somehow lower stakes.
So . . . Recommend?
Certainly. Even though I felt we took a bit of a step backward in The Girl in the Tower, I just love this setting so much that I would probably read a hundred stories written there. I want to see every little spirit in the woods, and meet every figure from the myths.
I’m assuming that The Winter Witch is going to have Baba Yaga vibes, and so I’m definitely still excited to read the conclusion of this trilogy. I’m sure there will be a review to come.
Since this is the end of the post, let’s talk abt this one. Have you read it? Did you love it? Is there something I just completely missed? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Happy #WyrdAndWonder. See you next time!
Still here? Awesome. I’m glad you enjoyed my review of Katherine Arden’s The Girl in the Tower. I was so inspired by this book, and others like it, as well as real Russian history, fairy tales and folk traditions, that I decided to write my own short story in a similar setting. It is called Farewell to Rusalka, and I released it to newsletter subscribers back in April. However, if you’re still interested in reading it, please sign up for my newsletter, and I’ll send you a copy as thank you.
Thanks for your time, and I hope to see you around here more!