The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
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.
I loved reading a Russian fairy tale! It’s such a unique flavor and cast of characters, definitely different than anything I have ever read before.
Arden’s writing is so beautiful. I felt completely immersed in Vasilisa’s world. Even in the heat of a Texas summer, the cold of a Russian winter burst through the pages. Her descriptions were so rich and vivid that I barely needed any imagination at all to envision the medieval Russian world. And what a lovely world she created! I was so enamored with Vasilisa and the Russian folklore.
A lot of authors feel like if they don’t set a rapid running pace, readers will get bored. Instead books often feel frantic. But The Bear and the Nightingale sets a more leisurely pace that lets you slow down and savor the luscious text. However, I still read this book pretty quickly. The story was unfamiliar enough to me that I couldn’t guess what was coming, so I didn’t want to stop reading. I had to know what came next!
I just adored the magic in this book. It was a very subtle magic, not always obvious that it’s there. But what enchanting magic! Vasilisa can talk to horses! Who doesn’t dream about being able to talk to horses? Yet, subtle as the magic was, it permeated every page of the book. I loved how the reader’s awareness of magic grew only as Vasilisa’s did. It helped the whole thing feel so much more mysterious.
I can’t say enough about how well Arden created a unique atmosphere in this book. It felt chilly, enchanting, mysterious, magical, and like any good fairy tale, just a little creepy. Something is lurking in the forest, and whatever it is wants Vasilisa. Whatever it is, it smells like death.
I fell in love with the characters too. Vasilisa, the quintessential wild child filled with passion and wisdom beyond her years. Peytor, her father, torn between his duty and his love for his family. Alyosha, probably my favorite big brother character ever. He really loves Vasilisa and is willing to go above and beyond for her. I even loved Konstantine, the priest who finds himself inexplicably attracted to Vasilisa. Complicated characters like Konstantine are hard to pull off, and Arden nailed it.
There are only two tiny critiques I would give. The use of so many Russian words and names was a great way to help me feel like I was part of the world, but the names got confusing. I wasn’t sure how to pronounce many of them (a pronunciation guide in addition to a glossary would have been so helpful!), and the frequent use of diminutives, nicknames, made it hard for me to keep track of who was who. Especially since the nicknames don’t necessarily resemble their actual name in any way! The second was that the church and the Christian God came across as bad guys. People are dying because they villagers are praying to God, and He does nothing to help them. I don’t know, I just think that’s a good way to alienate readers and could have been handled a little better.
But overall I just loved loved LOVED this book! I strongly recommend it to anyone who loves fairy tales. I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next book!