An impetuous young woman disguises herself as a boy and rides a mysterious horse through a lush and forbidding version of medieval Russia in the second novel in a proposed trilogy.
Vasya, who came of age in Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale (2017), has no plans to settle down after the tragic events that end the first novel. With the help of the enigmatic frost-demon Morozko, who feels a fatally human attraction to Vasya, the young woman learns to wield a knife and make herself at home in the frozen forest. After rescuing several girls stolen from burned-out villages, she makes her way to Moscow, where she finds her sister Olga, now a conservative royal matron, and her brother Sasha, a monk with a swashbuckling side. She faces a force even stronger and more malevolent than the human outsiders who threaten Moscow and its rulers. Arden, who is obviously steeped in knowledge of the history and landscape of medieval Russia, uses that background as a playground for the imagination, creating a world in which the mythical intertwines with the historical. House and bathhouse spirits play a critical role in the action, and ghosts are as real as Tatar invaders. While the novel occasionally falls prey to the typical problems of the second part of a trilogy, awkwardly shoehorning in characters from the first novel and broadly hinting at issues to be resolved in the third, for the most part it stands solidly on its own as an independent work. Its outspokenly feminist themes color the story without overwhelming it. The characters, if painted in broad strokes, are vivid and personable, and the brutal landscape, both physical and social, convincingly shapes their destinies.
A compelling, fast-moving story that grounds fantasy elements in a fascinating period of Russian history.