The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden (Historical Fantasy Novel, 2018).
This is the second in a series of novels that capably blends Russian folklore/fairy tales and medieval history into spirited adventure fiction in an exotic wilderness. Arden’s first novel introduced readers to Vasya, a young noble woman with the gift of seeing supernatural creatures others cannot. But one doesn’t have to have read The Bear and the Nightingale in order to enjoy and understand this new novel.
Driven from her home by superstitious villagers after the events of that earlier volume, Vasya enlists the reluctant help of Morozko, an immortal winter demon who (much against his will) is falling in love with this spunky mortal. Given a semi-magical horse (that she can talk to and with), she disguises herself as a boy and sets out to explore the depths of the Russian winter.
She happens to be the distant cousin of the brave but impulsive Grand Prince of Moscow, as well as the sister of a great swordsman/priest who is the Prince’s most trusted advisor and an older sister married to another of the Prince’s key nobles. At this time, Moscow is still a vassal state to the remnants of the Mongol Golden Horde, chafing under this foreign power’s dominance. Out in the wilderness where Vasya will be traveling, unidentified raiders have begun to attack, brutalize and burn unprotected villages.
Grand Prince Dmitrii, Vasya’s brother Sasha and a mysterious new ally of uncertain loyalties lead an expedition against the attackers. Yet it’s inexperienced Vasya who, after nearly dying in the winder cold, locates the murderous villains and frees two children they’ve abducted. A wild chase leads Vasya and her magnificent stallion Solovey to a reunion with her brother and contact with the Grand Prince.
In this time and place, noble women were expected to spend their entire lives segregated from men in castle towers (note the book’s titles) or as nuns in a convent. The very idea of one riding around the untamed countryside alone, having adventures and fighting if need-be was more than shocking. So a very reluctant Sasha has little choice than to continue the deception, telling the Grand Prince that Vasya as his little BROTHER. It’s a lie that will cause a lot of trouble for all concerned–but necessary at the moment, as she leads the men to the elusive enemy.
The Prince proclaims her a great hero and brings her back to Moscow, where a new stranger awaits–an arrogant, self-proclaimed ambassador from the Golden Horde’s current Khan. It seems the Prince’s people are behind on paying their taxes. But is this stranger a real ambassador? There are, rest assured, plenty of secrets and mysterious agendas playing out behind the walls of medieval Moscow’s Kremlin. Vasya’s secret identity (which her conflicted brother and now her older sister both have the hopeless task of protecting) is if anything the least of it.
There’s plenty of intrigue, action and adventure here. The pagan fairytale creatures are real, though their power is fading as most people are now firmly Christian. Only a few like Vasya believe in them and can see/communicate with them. And those who do so risk being denounced as witches and killed out of hand. An obsessed, vengeful and ultimately corrupted priest from Vasya’s home village came to Moscow before her arrival and poses another threat to her.
I’m not about to unleash a swarm of spoilers here. But I will say the book climaxes with a spectacular battle of both human and supernatural powers that leaves much of the city in ruins. The multiple evil forces are defeated, though at great cost and Vasya comes through it all, reunited with her surviving family members and surely to face new challenges, both cultural and supernatural, in the series’s next installment.