Atmospheric fairytale set in medieval Russia

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

As though her words were a summoning, a door among the firs – a door she hadn’t seen – opened with the crack of breaking ice. A swath of firelight bloodied the virgin snow. Now, quite plainly, a house stood in this fir-grove. Long, curling eaves capped its wooden walls, and in the snow-torn firelight, the house seemed to lie breathing, crouched in the thicket.

The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest. Meanwhile, bandits roam the countryside, burning villages and kidnapping daughters. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince and his trusted companion come across a young man riding a magnificent horse. Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior’s training, recognises this ‘boy’ as his younger sister, Vasya, thought by all to be dead.

I finished the first book in this new series, The Bear and the Nightingale (one of my favourite books of 2017) without knowing that it was the first in a planned trilogy. It worked well as a standalone novel, so I was nervously awaiting the second book in the series, The Girl in the Tower. Thankfully, after reading it, I can confirm that I had nothing to worry about.

In the first book we follow Vasya, a young girl who is the only one who can see the house spirits that guard her home and must protect her village from the forces of darkness gathering in the woods. In this second instalment we follow Vasya on her journey across the wintry landscape of medieval Russia, as she follows her desire to see as much of the world as she can.

Of course, things are never going to be that straightforward. Vasya is a young woman completely at odds with her time. Unwilling to spend her days fulfilling the traditional feminine role of mother and housekeeper, she sets out for adventure, but her gender makes it impossible to fit in. Vasya is a fascinating character, strong and brave but also desperately searching for somewhere to fit in, and this continuation of her journey is both emotive and thrilling.

This is a strange mix of historical and fantasy fiction; it’s neither one nor the other but Arden has taken elements of both and created a vivid and atmospheric world that feels both real and fairytale-esque. She creates a sense of bigger elements at play – hinting at political machinations and a troubled country – while always keeping her characters at the forefront of the story.

The grand towers of Moscow are set in direct contrast to the superstition and pagan beliefs of Vasya’s village in the first book. In Moscow, the spirits readers were introduced to in The Bear and the Nightingale are still there, only faded, as those who once believed in them turn to the newer religion instead. The conflict between old beliefs and new was an interesting theme introduced in The Bear and the Nightingale and I was glad to see Arden develop it further in this second novel.

Perhaps my only complaint would be about Vasya’s blossoming romance with an older character that feels slightly strange (we should have learned from Twilight that immortal men lusting after young girls is just wrong).

Nevertheless, the atmosphere conjured by Arden’s magical writing is beautiful. Her descriptions of the snowy landscapes and the frosty woods are so vivid they’re guaranteed to make you shiver. My problem with The Bear and the Nightingale was that it builds up to a conflict that fails to deliver, but The Girl in the Tower suffers no such problem; the final conflict is thrilling and nail-bitingly tense.

This is a beautiful winter fairytale and I can’t wait for the final book in this trilogy to find out where Vasya’s journey leads next.

Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Dark Peter Pan retelling has edges sharp enough to cut

Lost Boy by Christina Henry

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

Peter brings Jamie to his island because there are no rules and no grownups to make them mind. He brings boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper then a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Peter promised they would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

I picked up Lost Boy in Waterstones without ever having heard of it or its author before. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, but I haven’t been this excited to write about a book in a long while. This Peter Pan prequel turned out to be one of those unexpected reads that comes out of nowhere and completely knocks your socks off.

This is a brilliant novel. Fairy tale retellings are 10 a penny but this one is different; it has edges sharp enough to cut and will keep you up way past your bedtime. Henry creates incredible suspense – even though everyone already knows the story – so that you’re never sure what is just around the corner, or waiting on the next turn of the page.

Our narrator is Jamie, a boy who has been living on Peter Pan’s island for as long as he can remember. During all those years of never growing up, Jamie has looked up to Peter, has loved him with all his heart and trusted him always. But things are changing on the island, and Jamie starts to see Peter in a new light.

The Peter Pan of this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. He cares only for fun and games, for adventures and laughter, but what matters to him most is that the other boys all adore him. The moment one of them starts to doubt him is the moment they no longer matter to him, and there are plenty of ways on the island for a careless boy to disappear.

Lost Boy is strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its group of boys trapped on an island, the captivating claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense that something very, very bad is just seconds away from happening.

In Henry’s hands the sugar-sweet Disney-fied version of Peter Pan becomes a terrifying portrait of a ‘mad child’ whose idea of fun is killing pirates and watching boys fight to the death. The other boys are little more than toys that he picks up and puts down as he wishes, but he is so charming and brave that they can’t help but love him. Only Jamie understands Peter’s true cruel, manipulative nature, but even he isn’t immune to Peter’s influence.

I would highly recommend this book. Even if you’re not usually a fantasy fan, the characters and gripping storytelling will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it leads you to its thrilling, inexorable end.