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February 2018

It feels like Christmas morning over here at Rare Birds HQ – I have been patiently waiting for the day we could finally discuss the Girl in the Tower and that day is finally here!


The Girl in the Tower is the second installment of a fairytale fantasy series set in Medieval Russia starring Vasilisa Petrovna.


The book has been carefully marketed by its publisher both as a sequel and a stand-alone novel, and I’ve put that claim heavily to the test this month by tossing us in part way through the series.


It’s not usually my practice to read a series out of order, but I think it’s a good way to test how strong a story really is.


Can you start part way through and understand it? Does it feel like you’ve missed something? And crucially – does it feel like this story is just a waiting room before the real story takes place in the next book?


In my opinion, this book works – you can pick up The Girl in the Tower and read it on its own.


If you loved it, The Bear and the Nightingale (ie. the book that comes before GITT) is also a compelling and atmospheric read – but with mostly a different cast of characters and a completely different focus.


That disclaimer over, let’s get into the book.


There’s a huge amount of information to take in when you start reading, and a large glossary at the back of the book to help explain many of the words and ideas that feature in the book, so I’ll focus mostly on what’s actually going on in the story rather than dig any deeper into the background.


I don’t often read in this genre and I already know from your feedback that this was pushing many of you to the edge of your comfort zone with what you usually choose for yourselves. I hope though once you got into it you found it rewarding – I quickly went from a skeptic to a firm fan of this series.


Long-standing members of our book club will have heard me mention my ambivalence to the prologue before. As a plot device, it offers a bit of foreshadowing, usually at the expense of dramatic tension later on.


Prologues seem to be extremely fashionable in publishing at the moment, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised to see it used here.


I’ll allow it – I think it serves its purpose. Part One lays the foundation for much of the action to come, and our heroine Vasya naturally isn’t included in this yet.


The prologue introduces us to the two most significant characters (Vasya, Morozko) before quickly moving us along so we can start to understand the wider world the story will take place in.


The opening chapters are confusing but effective – it’s sort of like when you go swimming and plunge your head underwater for the first time.


You’re cold, you’re flailing around, trying to get used to the sensation of water all around you. Then suddenly you’ve acclimatised and you’re not freezing and shocked – you’re simply swimming.


By the time we meet Vasya again we know where the conflict is coming from; there’s a group of bandits raiding villages, we’ve met Kasyan, we’re starting to understand the dynamic between Sasha and Dmitrii and we’ve caught a glimpse of the developing relationship between Vasya and Morozko.


And in fact, the moments in the forest with Vasya and Morozko were among my favourite scenes in the book.  I am all about the Winter King; his begrudging admiration for Vasya and his inner turmoil as he realises he’s falling in love with her. I loved every moment of their star crossed love and how she demands things of him no one else would dare.


Vasya’s bravery is evident on pretty much every page, and something I liked about the book was that it always showed us the cost.


And a lot of what happens in the book is trouble of her own making. She’s not a victim of circumstance (the way you might argue Olga is, for example) – her arrogance and selfishness leads her into trouble that could have been easily avoided if she made different decisions.


This is what makes her a great heroine – she’s not perfect. She’s brave and resourceful, but she’s also often wrong and misguided.


You feel all the turmoil of her transition from childhood to adulthood – she makes decisions and has to live with the consequences of her actions, both good and bad.


She assumes that the life available to her – Olga’s life – will be unbearable, choosing an alternative path, but that one doesn’t necessarily bring with it the freedom she hoped.


We wouldn’t exactly accuse her of having a good time when she’s travelling through the forest, and when she arrives in Moscow, living as a boy is nearly as restrictive. The decisions she makes for herself have ramifications for others; in suiting herself she often puts her brother, sister, niece and even Morozko in danger.


The contrast between Vasya and Olga’s lives is stark. And on my first read of Girl in the Tower, I didn’t like Olga. I felt she lacked spirit. But as the story goes on the more you’re made to realise that she also exhibits a great deal of courage herself, albeit in a different way.


Olga took the road Vasya refused to travel – instead of running away from home as a teenager, Olga dutifully got married and learned to live within the restricted confines of what is expected of her.


By the time Vasya meets her again, a lot more is at stake for Olga. She is making decisions and sacrifices too, and with a lot more care for others than Vasya often shows. Where Vasya is selfish, Olga is much more controlled – Vasya is willing to risk her life but Olga is willing to make a sacrifice of it.


While the whole book is incredibly pacey, everything really turns on the final four chapters.


So to recap: Kasyan has exposed Vasya’s secret and asked Vasya to marry him. Olga nearly dies in labour until Vasya intervenes and chooses that the baby should die instead. Vasya discovers she’s wearing a piece of Morozko’s soul and rejects it (Call me, Morozko – I’ll wear it…).


Elsewhere, Sasha figures out what’s going on and sets off to save Dmitrii, and possibly Moscow, and the two of them eventually make up and and are fighting side by side again. Vasya releases a Firebrand that proceeds to set fire to Moscow.


Meanwhile, Kasyan kidnaps Olga’s daughter for his evil schemes, reveals himself as a powerful sorcerer who once loved a woman called Tamara. Her ghost appears, there’s a bit of a chat, Kasyan dies, Vasya rescues Marya then runs back into the burning city to drag Morozko into the land of the living, make it snow and save the city.


I devoured the entire book, but these last chapters in particular I barely blinked. When Vasya ran back into the burning city to summon Morozko I was riveted, and very nervous. And then suddenly it’s over – Morozko is gone, Olga offers forgiveness to her sister and we’re sort of left wondering: is that it? (spoiler: no, the sequel is published next year)  


We spend the entire book building up to what happens in the last few chapters and the fact that everything just seemed to clear itself up was a little frustrating.


Because so many major events were packed in together so tightly, combined, they almost felt a little minor.


We have zero time to process what is going on between Vasya and Morozko. We never really return to the consequences of Olga’s lost baby.


The threat of being exposed as liars to the Grand Prince is a source of tension throughout most of the book – yet when the worst happens, it turns out not to be such a big deal after all.


That criticism aside, I loved the Girl in the Tower. It was clever, absorbing and packed with detail and action. I loved Vasya. If I could, I’d keep a framed photo of Morozko beside my bed. If you feel similarly attached to the story, I highly recommend you go and give The Bear and the Nightingale a read, too – you can buy it in our bookstore.


Now. Over to you – what did you think of this one? Anyone else shipping Vasya and Morozko or is that just me?

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December 2017

I’m always up for a ghost story, but around Christmas is the best time to read books with the supernatural – it’s just inherently a magical time.


Every decision the author makes in the Silent Companions is to create tension and it starts building from page one.


The Victorian era is one that we generally associate with the supernatural and the superstitious on a cultural level – have you ever noticed ghosts are often depicted as Victorian children? So as soon as we find ourselves in that era the conditions are right for a very spooky time.


It’s also set just out of reach of technology – something like a phone line would have made it easy to get the message out when strange things start happening at The Bridge.


Finally, the use of three interweaving storylines means there are always holes in our understanding. Each chapter manages to throw up a bunch of questions and never gives us enough time to puzzle them out.


We open at St Joseph’s Hospital and this is the only part of the story taking place in real time. Elsie has spent much of the last year in a drug-induced fog avoiding the trauma she’s experienced. Her new attending Dr Shepherd is a progressive doctor and proposes to help piece together what happened to her by writing down her story.


The second important thread is Elsie’s time at The Bridge, the dilapidated country estate she moves into after her husband dies and where almost all the haunting takes place. Her story is what we’re reading in the past tense – this is an important thing to note and we’ll come back to it in a minute.


Finally, the third part of the story is the diary of Anne Bainbridge, who writes about the happenings at The Bridge in 1635 in the months before and after the family receives a visit from the King. Sarah begins reading the diary as a way to learn more about her family history, and eventually both she and Elsie use the events of the past to explain what’s happening to them in the present.


Though most of the story reads like a third person narration – meaning the narrator is not in the story, but outside of it, simply telling us what happened – the most important chapters, where all the action takes place, are effectively a first-person story.


What happens at The Bridge is Elsie’s version of events. These are the facts according to Elsie.


So do we trust Elsie?


As first there’s no reason not to – she’s sensible and deeply skeptical of what seems to be taking place around her at The Bridge, even as things become more and more unsettling.


But as the story goes on we also learn just how difficult Elise’s life has been and how much she’s repressed up until now, it doesn’t seem as simple.


It could just as easily be the complicated story of a fractured mind – as Dr Shepherd suggests – rather than a true telling of her being haunted by an evil we can’t quite understand.


Is Elsie truly being haunted by the silent companions or did she kill her brother in an act of self preservation when she learned he had betrayed her? When you remember that the doctor is using the story she tells to make recommendations about her guilt or innocence, you realise a lot is at stake for Elsie.


Though she appears not to have a stake in it, how she tells her own story could be the difference in her living out her life in relative comfort or being charged and hung for murder.


What I loved about the Silent Companions is just what a whirlwind it turned out to be. I had so much fun reading every creepy moment as it happened.


When Elsie returns to The Bridge and sees Hetta’s eye move when she’s looking through the window I genuinely felt my skin crawl.


It felt like the literary equivalent of Pin The Tail on the Donkey. It’s as if you’re blindfolded and spun around, and then at the end you’re left trying to pinpoint what was real and what wasn’t. Which details were most significant?


Weeks later I’m still going back and forth about how to explain everything that went on at The Bridge.


Did Anne Bainbridge really conjure her daughter from dark magic – was Hetta evil or had she been corrupted by something else? What is the significance of Elise looking like the companion?


And for that matter – what’s the significance of the companions? Are they enchanted to begin with or are they enchanted because of the evil that inhibits them after Anne murders her own daughter?


What does it mean that the man who sold them disappeared afterwards as if he never existed at all? Was Rupert’s mother haunted by the same evil – and if yes, why was the housekeeper safe and happy at The Bridge for all those years?


When Rupert returns, does he stir the evil back to life by finding the necklace or simply by showing up? And what happened to Sarah? What happened to the desk at the asylum – did evil follow Elsie there or did she tear it to shreds herself in a fit?


The answers are all very slippery – nothing fits together neatly as you sift back through the details and there is deliberately some ambiguity on the part of the author.


You’ve heard my thoughts – now I want to hear yours. What happened at The Bridge?