Sunday, 4 February 2018

Short Review: 'Hidden Women: The African-American Women Mathematicians who Helped America Win the Space Race' by Rebecca Rissman

I come from a family that is in love with space. Whether it's Star Wars, From the Earth to the Moon, actually applying to ESA, or studying Astronomy, we love the stars. So of course we loved Hidden Figures and the attention it brought to the African-American women who worked tirelessly to support the American space programme and yet weren't recognised for it. Since the movie came out I have been looking for more information on these women, and Hidden Women was a great introductory read. Thanks to Capstone and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Capstone

Tells the gripping story of four female African-American mathematicians who literally made it possible to launch US rockets--and astronauts--into space. Tells the thrilling tale of how each woman contributed, the struggles and resistance each experienced, and the amazing results. Consultants currently work for NASA.
When Hidden Figures came out, it spawned a whole range of books on the women central to the story. There were a plethora of them and I found it quite difficult to choose one to start with. African-American women have often had their hard work erased, either by actively hiding their involvement or giving the praise to those already in the spotlight. You can see it even now in America, where African-American women are a leading force in preventing people like Roy Moore winning elections, or organising protests for women's rights. What also adds interest to the women in Hidden Women is that they are a rare breed: women working in STEM. Although at university level women are more likely to study these subjects and do well in them, women still struggle against preconceptions in these fields. From young girls being told to pick Barbies over building sets, to young women being harassed in laboratories, a lot of obstacles still stand in women's ways. It is my hope that books like these, by bringing the stories of these women back, it will inspire more young women to enter these fields and have their contributions rewarded.

Rebecca Rissman does a great job at introducing the various women she describes. She tracks Katherine Johnson, Miriam Mann, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Annie Easley and Christine Darden, as well as some of the women currently working for NASA. She shows how these women worked their way up, as well as the challenges they faced on the way. African-American women then and now find themselves struggling not only against misogynistic prejudices, but also have to overcome racial stereotypes and active racism. Rissman really manages to convey their passion for the work they do, as well as their determination to let nothing stand in their way. Hidden Women is a great introductory read, giving you some of the details without getting too bogged down. I call it introductory because I would have loved some more information, for Rissman to dig down a little bit deeper into the circumstances of the women, the actual work they did, etc. But this isn't necessarily the book for that. Rissman made sure to consult people currently still working at NASA and the bibliography at the end of the book makes a great jumping off point for future research and reading.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

For those who want to know a little bit more about the African-American women who worked for NASA during the space programme, Hidden Women  is perfect. However, I'm still looking for a book that will really dig into their lives and their work. Recommendations anyone?

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review: 'The Wicked Cometh' by Laura Carlin

I'm always looking for historical fiction and mystery stories with female protagonists set in Victorian England. Sadly I have also often been burned during that search. It takes a deft touch to combine all those different aspects and not have one of them become disastrous. So when I saw The Wicked Cometh I was immediately intrigued. People are going missing? Wickedness in London? A bright young woman in the midst of it all? I am SO here for it! Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
'We have no need to protect ourselves from the bad sort because we ARE the bad sort . . .' 
'This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type' - The Morning HeraldTuesday 13 September 1831 
Down the murky alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and the city's vulnerable poor are disappearing from the streets. Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible. 
When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the fiercely intelligent and mysterious Rebekah Brock. 
But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life and both she and Rebekah are lured into the most sinister of investigations, dragging them into the blackest heart of a city where something more depraved than either of them could ever imagine is lurking. . .
In a sense The Wicked Cometh is a mystery novel that tries to answer a straightforward question: why are people disappearing? But Laura Carlin uses this as a way to address class which, in my eyes, definitely elevates the plot. Hester is poor, incredibly poor, living among equally poor and hungry and cold people in London the 1800s. But her life wasn't always like this. When her parents were alive she enjoyed comfort and education, but now, as an orphan, she has not much to hope for. That is, until pure chance literally throws her in the way of the Brock family where she gets another chance. Through Hester, Carlin is able to show the harsh divide between the rich and poor, how the former can look down upon the latter with disgust and zero awareness of how they came to be poor. The constant clash between expectations and reality are really interesting and add an extra layer of meaning to The Wicked Cometh.

In the next paragraph I'm going to discuss two different themes running through the novel, however, these are pretty much spoilers. So please ignore the rest of this paragraph if you want to remain unspoiled! Still with me? Ok, let's go! At the heart of the wickedness taking place in London lies the working on human corpses in the hope to gain, at least initially, medical knowledge. It is something that also popped up in Rawblood, the contemporary terror of people at the mere thought of human corpses being operated on in order to advance medical knowledge. Carlin strikes a successful balance in showing both the understandable fear of her characters, as well as how her bad guy has lost his subjectivity when it comes to his endeavour. It was done really well I thought, especially combined with The Wicked Cometh's focus on class. The disregard with which the upper class considers the lower really comes out through this plot line. Another theme was love, especially love between women. Carlin worked this out so beautifully in The Wicked Cometh that I was rooting for it before the characters themselves were even truly aware of their feelings. Not once did it feel Carlin would exploit their love for sensationalism, rather she treated it like the previous thing love is.

The Wicked Cometh is incredibly atmospheric and this is all due to Laura Carlin's beautiful writing. Her London comes to life through her descriptions which are incredibly evocative, whether it's the dirt on the streets or the sound of the crowd. The houses, the people, the weather and mood, it's all described in a way that draws the reader in straightaway. I felt like I was watching a movie sometimes, with the amount of detail Carlin managed to confer to me. Carlin takes a lot of time at the beginning of the novel to set her scene and establish her characters, which may not work for everyone but I loved it. Also, I adored Hester, she was such a scrappy and determined main character who stayed true to herself as much as she could. Carlin makes some choices towards the end of the novel which felt a bit rushed, as if she was trying to tie every story line together into one thread and thereby stretched some of them a bit too far. In a way some of these choices reminded me of the Gothic novels of the time, deeply dramatic and a bit too much, but sadly it didn't really work and betrayed some of the strong plot choices made earlier in the novel. However, this didn't really affect my opinion on the overall novel that much, compared to a different novel I read recently.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored The Wicked Cometh with all of its sumptuous details and lovable heroines! I was sucked into the plot straightaway and loved all of the dramatic twists and turns. I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in Historical Fiction and Mystery. I will definitely keeping my eye out for Laura Carlin's next novel.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Review: 'Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong' by Angela Saini

I was a feminist before I knew it. The tenets of feminism were so integral to my life as a young woman it never came to me to truly question it. That is, until my first conversation with someone with other opinions, presenting me with "scientific facts" that undermined everything I thought was true. And so started a journey of reading and researching, digging through decades of misogynistic writing to get as close to the truth as I could. Angela Saini's Inferior came at just the right time and I'm incredibly glad to have read it. Thanks to Fourth Estate and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/05/2017
Publisher: Harper Collins; Fourth Estate

From intelligence to emotion, for centuries science has told us that men and women are fundamentally different. But this is not the whole story. 
Shedding light on controversial research and investigating the ferocious gender wars in biology, psychology and anthropology, Angela Saini takes readers on an eye-opening journey to uncover how women are being rediscovered. She explores what these revelations mean for us as individuals and as a society, revealing an alternative view of science in which women are included, rather than excluded.
As I said, feminism is quite integral to my being. I also come from quite an academic background, which I always thoughts would be a boon. But there is no single truth when it comes to science and academia. Feminism and science are similar in that sense. They are an ongoing conversation, consistently working on improving themselves, adjusting to new discoveries and full of contention. Those who think scientific discourse is straitlaced and calm is completely wrong. Academics can get vicious, in their own way, and careers are destroyed in the process. Science is a fluid thing, a fact which, to some, disqualifies its findings. However, science has an enormous impact on society. Sometimes research even has more impact on society than on its own field! Freud is no longer an authority in psychology, yet almost every piece of literature and cinema is still deeply affected by it. The same happens with other research, especially now that the Internet easily disseminates it with clickbait-y headlines. I loved the way Saini addressed all of these issues in Inferior and it has definitely opened my eyes to my own response to new research on gender.

In Inferior Saini takes an honest and interested look at how science has discussed women, and especially the difference between women and men. She does so without forcing her own opinions onto the research or judging academics in advance. As such, this book is full of honest discoveries and realisations. I was stunned to find out that despite all of his forward-thinking, Darwin believed women were biologically less evolved than men, biologically made to stay at home, far away from books. I was amazed by how deftly Saini discusses opposing sides. The aim of Inferior is to do away with the idea that women are biologically inferior, but she does so not by outrightly claiming so and then finding theories that support her opinions. Rather she looks at both sides, lays out different arguments, and shows the potential weaknesses in both. Although Inferior doesn't cover everything I found it to be a very interesting read. It is impossible to really answer the question definitely, whether there is a difference between men and women, because the question itself is loaded. But books like Inferior make a good headstart in continuing the conversation.

Angela Saini does a brilliant job in Inferior. I have two family members who are physicists and whenever they talk I can feel my brain start hurting from the lingo. Yes, I am one of those Literature students and although Literary Theory terms are nothing to me, I am a complete novice in most scientific terms. But Saini manages to make the studies she explores gripping and accessible, whether it is the intricacies of the brain or the habits of nomadic tribes. Not once did I get distracted or bored while reading Inferior. Rather I found myself wanting more! I was also immensely impressed by how objective Saini remains throughout the entire book. Although she has her own opinions she doesn't allow those to prejudice her. It becomes really clear from the book that Saini herself is incredibly interested in this topic and that researching and writing it was also a journey for her. It makes reading Inferior a joyous experience and once I finished it I was ravenous for more. I will definitely be browsing through the bibliography to continue my research. Thank you Angela Saini for entertaining me, enlightening me and educating me!

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I enormously enjoyed reading Inferior. Despite its content, Saini manages to make this an entertaining and gripping read, easy to understand and challenging to grapple with. I'd recommend this to anyone interested both in science and in the history of women.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Review: 'Swansong' by Kerry Andrew

I only spent a year in Scotland but I fell in love with its rugged charm and haunting nature. Ever since that year I have been looking for more books set in Scotland, especially because I adore its folk takes and culture. So a folk song adaptation set in the Scottish Highlands? Count me in! Swansong looked to be right up my street so of course I had to check it out. Thanks to Jonathan Cape and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/01/2018
Publisher: Vintage; Jonathan Cape
In this stunningly assured, immersive and vividly atmospheric first novel, a young woman comes face-to-face with the volatile, haunted wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. 
Polly Vaughan is trying to escape the ravaging guilt of a disturbing incident in London by heading north to the Scottish Highlands. As soon as she arrives, this spirited, funny, alert young woman goes looking for drink, drugs and sex – finding them all quickly, and unsatisfactorily, with the barman in the only pub. She also finds a fresh kind of fear, alone in this eerie, myth-drenched landscape. Increasingly prone to visions or visitations – floating white shapes in the waters of the loch or in the woods – she is terrified and fascinated by a man she came across in the forest on her first evening, apparently tearing apart a bird. Who is this strange loner? And what is his sinister secret? 
Kerry Andrew is a fresh new voice in British fiction; one that comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting.
I'm a big fan of Magical Realism, it is one of my favourite genres. When done well, it can lift an "ordinary" story into the extraordinary, adding beautiful touches that explain the inexplicable. Human life, especially our interior, mental life, is incredibly complex and confusing and it is difficult to encompass that in a straightforward narrative. By weaving magic into their stories, authors are able to explain things that otherwise they could not. Swansong does this, bringing metaphors and folktales to the story of a lost young woman. My eye was immediately drawn by Andrew's use of folk song and mythologies as inspirations for her book. Rife with history and culture, these folk songs, despite their age, still ring true in some way, strike a chord that can't be quieted. Just for this I find it worthwhile reading Magical Realism, to find new words to describe my thoughts, new images in which to capture my feelings. Swansong, with its dark and haunting imagery, does just that.

Swansong is quite a complicated read at times. The novel is a mix between a coming-of-age novel, a mystery thriller and magical realism. On the one hand Andrew's novel is grounded in the relatively realistic troubles of young Polly Vaughan whose life is slowly unravelling, but on the other hand Swansong soars above that, mixing the magical with the realist. Polly is not always a likeable character. Actually, most of the time you want to shake her and tell her to pull herself together. But then I remember myself at university, how terrifying it can be to suddenly have to stand on your own two feet, to deal with all the consequences of stupid actions and to push through it all somehow. So although you can't always empathise with Polly, you can understand her. Polly is just as in the dark as the reader, arriving in a completely different environment where things have been brewing under the surface for a while. As she slowly loses herself in the woods the question becomes, who will she be when she emerges?

Part of what intrigued me about Swansong was Kerry Andrew's writing. Initially I struggled getting into the mood of the novel, as Polly's narration is quite choppy. Her thoughts are quick and jumbled, she is panicking and stressing, torn between regretting the past and trying to forget it. Once I got into it, however, it really started working for me. Thanks to the writing you really get into the main character's head and it contrasted beautifully to the more magical and lyrical moments in the novel. One of the best things about this novel are Andrew's beautiful descriptions of the Scottish Highlands. Having been there, Swansong felt a little bit like a return to that landscape. Andrew takes you on a journey through a ravaged young woman's mind and although it isn't always comfortable or understandable, you do end up caring for her. Aside from her story, an ancient 'whodunnit' mystery pops up, adding to Polly's desire for answers and fear of the past. At time it almost feels like too much, but Andrew manages to strike a good balance.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although I struggled with Swansong at times, something about Andrew's novel gripped me. Andrew allows you to sink away into her landscape and the drama she creates, until it becomes almost too much. I'd recommend it to those who enjoy Magical Realism and Suspense.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review: 'Her Body and Other Parties' by Carmen Maria Machado

Sometimes you come to a book because you have heard so much about it that it becomes impossible to avoid. I often try to do so anyway, until the hype dies down and I can actually enjoy it naturally, without ridiculous expectations. I do the same for movies, which is why I still refuse to watch Easy A. The same was happening with Her Body And Other Parties, only that I was intrigued by its premise that I still went for it. As a consequence I had pretty high expectations of Machado, and she managed to meet each and every single one of them. Thanks to Serpent's Tail and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/12/2017
Publisher: Serpent's Tail

SHORTLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FICTION PRIZE 2017 'Brilliantly inventive and blazingly smart' Garth Greenwell 'Impossible, imperfect, unforgettable' Roxane Gay 'A wild thing ... covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi' New York Times  
In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling narratives map the realities of women's lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice. A wife refuses her husband's entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store's dresses. One woman's surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest. Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and Other Parties is wicked and exquisite.
I adored this collection. There is simply no other way of putting it. What I adore about short story collections is how they allow authors the space to explore different topics, writing styles etc. while uniting them under a single theme or idea. Her Body and Other Parties does this beautifully. From the very first story, Machado turns a sharp eye to the female body and all that affects it. Growing up female often means that you grow up torn, constantly questioning and doubting your body and how it looks. Why is your hair like that? Why are your legs not thinner? How dare you wear a bikini if you're not skinny? What I myself have realised over time is that it takes very long before you actually come to appreciate your body, its strength and power. In Her Body and Other Parties Machado looks at the female body from different angles, at its ability to create life, to feel love and lust, to be used and abused, to house a fragile mind. She truly does something unique here and I will be returning to this collection often.

The stories in Her Body and Other Parties are stunning. From the first tale, 'The Husband Stitch', Machado drags you into the world of women's bodies and the tales these tell. In a sense 'The Husband Stitch' is the best example of that, as the narrator chronicles her life with her husband and the mystery of the ribbon around her neck, while relating tales she has heard of other women. There is a mystical suspense to the story which consistently leaves the reader with a sense of unease and fear, yet also a desperate desire to know, to look into the darkness and confront what you find there. This feeling continues throughout all the stories, whether it's the tragically lyrical 'Mothers' or the horrifying 'Eight Bites'.The collection's last story, 'Difficult at Parties' is a perfect finale for Her Body and Other Parties, combining Machado's clear-eyed observations, a sense of lurking unease, and a revelation that feels like a punch in the throat. 

Carmen Maria Machado weaves magic with her words in Her Body and Other Parties. Usually I don't like it when blurbs draw connections between new authors and well-established "Greats" because it sets unfair and impossible expectations. In this case, however, those comparisons are completely justified. I was struck by how much the spirit of Her Body and Other Parties did indeed remind me of Angela Carter. Not because of its theme or topics, but because of the bravado and inventiveness with which Machado writes. These stories are a tour-de-force, each taking a different approach, working with a different style, and yet bringing home its point with a gentle forcefulness. You have a story like 'The Husband Stitch' which is filled with little asides, instructing readers how to "perform" certain emotions and events in case they're reading the story out loud. There is 'Especially Heinous', one of my personal favourites, which reads like an episode guide for Law & Order: SVU but with completely new and wildly outrageous stories. 'The Resident' feels like a psychological thriller, while 'Inventory' configures itself both as a memoir of relationships as well as a dystopian story. And throughout it all Machado's writing is sharp and precise, ranging between beautifully descriptive and provocatively uncanny. 

Her Body and Other Stories has so much to offer to a reader willing to dive in, no holds barred. Each story will throw up a different question to which there is perhaps no immediate answer. But that is what good books are supposed to do, make you wonder and doubt, reassess and discover. Her Body and Other Stories will make an incredible addition to anyone's bookshelf!

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

I loved Her Body and Other Parties and for once think that the hype is completely justified. There are not enough words to praise this collection and what it tries to do. I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to be surprised and shocked, engaged and horrified, provoked and soothed. GO READ THIS BOOK!

Review: 'The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock' by Imogen Hermes Gowar

I'm not going to lie, the first thing I noticed about this book was the fact 'mermaid' is in the title. Although not my favourite mythical creature, I do have a soft spot for mermaids and their plight. But then what intrigued me more was the hint of the different sides of 18th century London Imogen Hermes Gowar was planning to explore. So I dived into this novel fearlessly and was enormously rewarded by it. Thanks to Vintage, Harvill Secker and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. DateL 25/01/2018
Publisher: Vintage; Harvill Secker

A spellbinding story of curiosity, love and obsession from an astonishing new talent. 
One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. 
As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess? 
In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.
It wasn't until the very end of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock that I think I finally understood the message of the novel. Most books end up discussing that greatest topic of all, the human condition, the why and wherefore of human existence. Thankfully there is no answer or solution to that topic, hence why we keep getting new and brilliant novels. In the end, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a novel about, as the blurb says, 'curiosity and obsession'. What happens when you spend your whole life chasing something, a dream, a cargo, a house, a position in society, and then you don't get it? And what if you do? Are there possibilities you're not seeing, consequences you're not imagining,  adventures you're not undertaking, just because you're obsessed with a certain plan or idea? It wasn't until the end of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock that I saw that all the novel's different story lines come together to pose this question. And the way in which Gowar does so makes the journey across her novel's pages all the more worth it. Diving into her characters, into 18th century London was an experience!

What I love about the title of this novel is that it doesn't give much away, but once you've read the novel you realise it's a perfect representation of the novel. On the one hand there is the fantastical and the magical, both of the mermaid and of the surface lives of some of the characters. It all seems charmed and beautiful, until you look below the surface. And then, on the other hand, there is the hard, historical fact of the lives of the novel's characters. The fact is that, despite the constant development and "improvement", living in the 18th century in London was no fun for most. Gowar addresses the conflicting roles of women in London's society, how delicate their position is, how easily they are taken advantage of, how far they can fall. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock moves between the narration of different characters, each of whom show their own stories through the third person. Whether it's the courtesans, the businessmen or the servants, each get a chance to tell their story and share their view. For some the pace of the novel may be too slow, or the plot may be too broad, but if you take your time with this novel, if you let it work its magic, it will be an incredibly worthwhile reading experience.

One of the major pluses of this novel is Imogen Hermes Gowar's writing. From the moment you start The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock you feel utterly immersed in 18th century London. The amount of detail that Gowar works into her writing without making it obvious is astounding. There is truly a sense that you can smell the cakes and the streets, feel the heat of fires and cold of winds, hear the rustle of gowns and carriages rolling past. Historical Fiction has the difficult task of mixing history with fiction, but Gowar manages to give you both without betraying either. Her research shows itself in how effortless she imparts knowledge to you. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is enormous, nearly 500 pages long, and in part this is because Gowar takes her time. The plot meanders at times, there are subplots that aren't necessarily relevant to the main story of the mermaid or Mrs. Hancock, but each does bring something to the reading experience. I would have liked some more closure on one or two of them, to see the story either clearly brought to an end or finished enough to allow the reader to imagine an end for themselves.

I give this novel..

4 Universes!

I adored The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. It is a sumptuous novel that takes you on a stroll through 18th century London while showing you a set of characters trying to do their best. Gowar's writing is gorgeous and her characters are rough and real. I can't wait to read her next book! I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and those willing to work for their Magical Realism.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Review: 'The Girl in the Tower (Winternight #2)' by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy, #2)I started my review of The Bear and the Nightingale in all-caps, violently demanding more. I would have done the same for The Girl in the Tower, except that I don't think Caps Lock can actually express my desire accurately. I devoured the first book in the Winternight trilogy in a single night and, unfortunately, did exactly the same for The Girl in the Tower. Then I spent some time just happily staring at it, deeply satisfied. In the paragraphs below I have tried to put my fangirling into words, hopefully they make sense. Thanks to Ebury Publishing, Del Rey and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/01/2018
Publisher: Del Rey; Ebury Publishing

For a young woman in medieval Russia, the choices are stark: marriage or a life in a convent. Vasya will choose a third way: magic... 
The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest. Meanwhile bandits roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping its 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, thought to be dead or a witch by her village. But when Vasya proves herself in battle, riding with remarkable skill and inexplicable power, Sasha realises he must keep her secret as she may be the only way to save the city from threats both human and fantastical...
The second book in a trilogy often has the hardest job of all. On the one hand you need to keep readers entertained and invested, but you can't just do the same thing as you did in the first book. You also need to prepare the board for the epic finale still to come without making your moves too obvious. Not many sequels manage to do all this, but The Girl in the Tower does so beautifully. Arden advances the plot, widens the world within which her characters move and, above all, allows her characters to grow and develop! While The Bear and the Nightingale beautifully showed Vasya growing from child to girl, The Girl in the Tower shows her growing up and becoming a woman. And with that Arden gives stunning commentary on the role of women in society. I hadn't expected the gentle ferocity (this is not a paradox, trust me!) with which Arden articulates the limits upon women and the pain this causes. She doesn't force this realisation upon her readers, doesn't shout it in their faces, but rather shows it throughout the novel, expertly following that maxim 'show, don't tell'.

Vasya was one of my favourite heroines of the last year and this is even more true after reading The Girl in the Tower. Although Arden moves between different narrators into this book, showing us the minds of Vasya, Sasha and even Morzoko at times, Vasya remains the heart of the Winternight Trilogy. As I said above, Arden shows her developing and changing without betraying who she is as a character. She remains spirited and passionate, with a heavy serving of stubborn, but also deeply dedicated to her family. But she also learns and grows. While The Bear and the Nightingale's action was limited largely to Vasya's father's estate, The Girl in the Tower sees her literally riding into the big wide world, dressed as a boy. While she faced dangers back home, greater threats await her and she has to adapt to meet them, which happens naturally. Arden builds up her world believably, introducing, in some cases re-introducing, more and more power players without losing the plot. The stakes increase as well, with more being at risk for both Vasya and those she loves, but Arden keeps it realistic. Once I finished The Girl in the Tower I contemplated for a bit and realised there is literally nothing I could even contemplate complaining about in this book. In a way this makes my job incredibly difficult since there are only so many ways you can express your love for something before you look crazy, but I'd rather have it this way than any other.

Arden continues to bowl me over with her books. Whether she has me gripping my sheets during action sequences or actually giggling like a teenager over certain moments, Arden is continually evoking something in her readers. Her descriptions of Russian nature and Moscow's architecture are stunning and her research into Russian folklore and history really shows itself in how natural the two flow alongside each other. In some ways The Girl in the Tower is the perfect historical fantasy book, grounded enough in fact to allow the fiction to shine. Arden strikes a fine balance between a modern and a mythical tone. Her heroine is an intrinsically modern one, coming up with phrases like the one below:
'Bogatyry ride the world, rescuing maidens. Why not I?'
On the other hand there remains that sense of the old, the ancient and the legendary. Certain descriptions, certain turns of phrases, they create the perfect mood in which magic is not only possible, but natural. In The Girl in the Tower Arden also continues her dance across the fine line that is romance. There are enough hints there to keep everyone content, but Arden never sacrifices her heroine or her plot to the desire for A Grand Romance.

Actually, I have thought of one criticism: why is it already over? Why couldn't it just go on forever? I need that third book straightaway. Although, maybe take your time with it, Katherine. I don't think I can handle this trilogy's future end quite yet.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I literally couldn't have asked for more from The Girl in the Tower. Everything I wanted to see and things I didn't even know I wanted, Arden delivers in this book. It is a perfect continuation of the Winternight trilogy and has certified her as one of my favourite contemporary writers. Please do yourself a favour and read this book!