The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
Published: January 10
Genre: adult fiction, historical fiction, fantasy
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
Vasya is both treasured and scorned by her father, for her birth brought about her mother’s death. But her mother knew Vasya was meant for great things. When her father brings back a Moscow bride, fearful and deeply devout, the new stepmother disrupts the understood order of the household. The rituals, such a deep part of the village’s culture and way of life, are in place for a reason, and the arrival of an arrogant priest further drives the helpful beings away. A great evil looms in the forest in winter, and Vasya must summon the courage to defeat it before she, and her village, burns.
A fairy tale within a fairy tale: I don’t know how else to describe The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s a perfect winter read — enchanting, atmospheric, enthralling, and magical. Set in 14th-century Russia, a time when Christianity took hold in the cities but paganism and lore was the stronghold in the surrounding villages, Arden was able to capture the spirit and culture of Russia before the tzars. I love the liberties she took as well as all the information she provided about the time period within the novel and her author’s note. Such a rich and beautiful read.
I was not prepared at first for the writing style and voice. In the beginning chapters I found it to be a little jarring — I wasn’t expecting magical realism or the fairy tale atmosphere. I purposely avoided all the reviews because I wanted this to be special. (It most certainly was.) Once I was in, I was hooked.
One of the things that really grabbed me was the examination of organized religion disrupting cultural traditions. I was familiar with this from Celtic history courses I took in undergrad. The creatures of the hearth and home, the yard, the forest, the water, the barn — they all work together to keep their people safe, but only if the people provide offerings. While Vasya can see them and honors them appropriately, Anna sees them and is frightened of “demons.” With the priest’s arrival, havoc and chaos is wrecked upon the village. The more people disbelieve in the Old Ways, the more the little creatures fade away.
I don’t know where I’m going with that, but I would love to discuss this more with others! I wonder if the modern equivalent would be living with science and religion, fact versus fiction/fairy tale. Thoughts?
Anyway, this really is a fairy tale above everything else. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in Russian history and culture, vampires (huge role in this book!), fierce heroines, and the cultural elements and inspiration for Uprooted.