The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Picking up from where we left her in The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya Petrovna, disguised as a boy, makes her way to Moscow with the help of the frost demon Morozko and her faithful horse Solovey. Moscow is her first stop on her quest to see the world, and where she hopes to be reunited with her sister, Olga. However, trouble is never far behind, and Vasya finds herself rescuing a few maidens along the way. Meanwhile, Vasya’s brother, Sasha, urges the Grand Prince Dmitrii to deal with the roving bandits that have been kidnapping girls and burning villages across Russia. Once in Moscow, Vasya enters a world utterly different from village she left. The grandeur of the city is like magic, and yet the magic Vasya knows holds little power there. She is also torn by the admiration she receives while masquerading as a boy, while knowing the fate that awaits her as a young woman: either to marry or enter a convent. On her journey, Vasya learns more about her family and her ties to Morozko, while a new dark power threatens to overtake Moscow.
There are several plot threads woven through The Girl in the Tower — the second book of the Winternight Trilogy — and Arden brings them together beautifully. As in the previous book, Arden’s lush prose transports the reader to medieval Russia, and her strong grasp of history and creative adaptation of folklore again makes for a winning combination. The story unfolds through the eyes of several characters, which enriches our understanding of them and the world they inhabit. Vasya is still as brave and strong-willed as ever but, thanks to the new setting and characters, she continues to grow as a character, too. The development of her relationships with her siblings and Morozko is particularly lovely. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here, and I’m sure readers will be champing at the bit for the next book!
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
In a fantastical version of medieval Russia, Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna inherits her grandmother’s ability to see and commune with the household spirits and mystical creatures that live side by side with the people of her village. Free-spirited Vasya would rather run wild in the woods than perform her duties as a rich boyar’s daughter. When Vasya’s stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, comes to the household, things begin to change. Anna can also see the spirits, though she fears them and believes them to be demons. Making matters worse, the zealous, handsome Konstantin comes to serve as the village priest, and he encourages the villagers to turn from the old ways. The spirits weaken, and an unnaturally harsh winter brings death, hunger, and fear to the village. Aided by the fabled frost demon Morozko, Vasya must embrace her gift to save both her family and the village (and maybe the world) before it’s too late.
Katherine Arden’s debut is part historical fiction, part fantasy, and completely gorgeous. Lush prose and fully formed characters make for a compelling read, and Vasya is a worthy heroine. This is the first in a planned trilogy, and readers will be anxious for the next installment. Highly recommended for historical or literary fiction readers who don’t mind a dash of the fantastic. Fantasy readers who liked Uprooted by Naomi Novik will also enjoy this. This book would also be a great pick for teens.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya von Bremzen
Anya von Bremzen describes life and food in 20th century Russia, the Soviet Union, and former Soviet republics. Born in Moscow in 1963, Anya and her mother Larisa moved to Philadelphia in 1974. By telling the stories of her grandparents and parents, Anya describes each decade of the 20th century, along with the food popular then. Her Jewish grandmother Liza was from Odessa on the Black Sea, her grandmother Alla was an orphan born in Turkestan and raised by a Bolshevik feminist in Uzbekistan. Her grandfather Naum was an intelligence officer, and her father Sergei helped preserve Lenin’s body through science. Through visits to family with her mother and later travels in the former republics with her boyfriend, Anya immerses the reader in the food and culture of each place and time. Trained as a pianist at Julliard, she became a James Beard award-winning food writer. We learn that standing in lines in Moscow could be a social event, as was the case when her parents met in a line for ballet tickets. The alternating availability and scarcity of various foods, such as bread and corn, could make anyone obsess over food, especially if forced to use a communal kitchen or eat caviar in kindergarten. While I don’t know if I’ll be trying any of the recipes at the end of the book, Anya’s memoir really kept my interest.