The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.
Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.
I really loved Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, an historical fantasy set in medieval Russia, and was keen to see Vasya’s adventures continue. This is my favourite kind of fantasy –a proud, courageous, and sympathetic heroine, a setting rich in sensuous detail, drenched in the magic of its time, and a storyline that is both suspenseful and yet believable.
In the first book, we saw Vasya grow from a child to a young woman, and face accusations of witchcraft because of her uncanny ability to see magical creatures hidden to most human eyes. One of those creatures is the frost demon Morozko, and Vasya has an ambivalent and troubling relationship with him.
In this sequel, this relationship – which is not quite a romance – takes centre stage, as Vasya struggles to find a place for herself in the world. Offered two choices – marriage or a convent – she disguises herself as a boy and sets out to find adventure instead. The depiction of medieval Russia – vast, snowbound, and dangerous – is marvellously done. Vasya and her horse struggle to survive, and yet she spurns the help of Morozko, afraid of its hidden cost.
“You are immortal, and perhaps I seem small to you,” she said at last fiercely. “But my life is not your game.”
It is not easy maintaining her boyish disguise, as Vasya battles with outlaws who are burning villages and stealing children, and deals with family tensions and the unwanted attentions of a mysterious stranger. A compulsively readable and beautifully written mix of Russian history and folklore.