Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fantasy, Retellings
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
Hardcover: 336 Pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Standalone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher. **Full disclosure: Thea works for the parent company, Penguin Random House**
Format (e- or p-): Hardcover
At the edge of the wild woods of northern Rus’, a boyar and his family live happily (if not to the rich standards of their relatives in Moscow). Pyotr Vladimirovich has three healthy sons, a sweet-mannered daughter, and a beautiful wife, Marina, whom he loves deeply. He wants for nothing–but Marina yearns for another daughter. You see, Marina is not only a princess (daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow), but also carries magic in her blood–her wildling, fey-like mother imbued Marina with a gift, one that she knows will pass to her next daughter.
Vasilisa, Vasya for short, is born to this family in the woods–and Marina dies in childbirth. But Marina’s greatest hope comes true, for Vasya is no ordinary village girl. As the years pass, Vasya grows up wild and strong; she learns how to ride horses like the wind, to speak with the hungry rusalka who lures small animals and young men to her pond, to placate the domovoi who mends the household clothes and minds the hearth. Vasya can see all of these spirits, the fairytales, myths, and monsters of old–and though no one else can, her family and the people of her father’s lands respect and pay their tributes to the old ones, in stories, bread, and milk.
But all of that changes, when two people enter Vasya’s young life. First, her father Pyotr travels to Moscow to find himself a new wife–a mother for the wild Vasilisa, who he fears will be unmarriageable and unmanageable if she continues in the way she has been heading. He returns with great honor–the Grand Prince has betrothed his daughter, Anna Ivanovna, to marry Pyotr. Pyotr does not know, however, how Anna is regarded by her own family–locked away, given sideways glances for her strangeness, her refusal to go in certain areas or look in certain corners, her obsession with piety and the church. For Anna, you see, is like Vasya–she can see the demons and spirits that other mortals cannot.
As the years pass, and with the arrival of a charismatic, power-driven clergyman to Vasilisa’s village, the old ways start to lapse–traded for Christian fear and fire. And a great and ancient force is stirring, feeding on the growing chaos, blood, and fear…
The Bear and the Nightingale is the debut novel from Katherine Arden, and it is a beauty. A historical fantasy, Arden draws upon Russian folklore and a rich pastoral setting to create the perfect burrow-down-and-read winter novel. Character-driven at its core, The Bear and the Nightingale is the story of a wild, bold young heroine–it’s a story that isn’t exactly new or groundbreaking, but it’s comforting and beautifully told in Arden’s lush prose. Vasilisa is headstrong and special, gifted with abilities to see and understand things others cannot or do not wish to acknowledge: she can see the household spirits, converse with them, save them from death by being forgotten. (And of course, along the way, she also gets said spirits to help her in her own hour of need.)
Which brings me to the other major themes of this story: the motifs of belief and of change. Like other fables, the mythological creatures of Vasya’s world–of so many other fantastical worlds–derive their sustenance from the power of belief. The tension of incoming Christianity and the faith in the Church is juxtaposed against these myths of old, and in doing so The Bear and the Nightingale puts an inherent wariness and mistrust of the transition from the ancient to the new. The lot of women in this medieval setting is to slave over a stove and become a housewife and property of her husband, or go to convent–a future that Vasya struggles against and resists, despite her family’s imploring that she settle. And yet, for the progressiveness granted to Vasya, the novel overall is wary, set against the tides of change. Thematically, this is a precarious balance, and one that Arden, through characters Vasya and Konstantin Nikonovich (the priest) attempts to navigate–to muddled ends.
Thematic blurriness aside, The Bear and the Nightingale reminds me of the Sevenwaters books from Juliette Marillier–at least in spirit and in potential. That comparison isn’t quite fair, as the Sevenwaters series is among my favorites of all time for its beautiful and careful execution–The Bear and the Nightingale doesn’t quite hit that level of awesomeness. And yet, the novel is undeniably lovely, especially where it touches on the themes of duty and of familial love. I especially appreciated the emphasis on maternal lineage and relationships, and the love between Vasya, her father, and her youngest brother Alyosha–however, I was not as enamored with the romantic storyline in the novel. Overall, the biggest drawback in my mind was how rushed the story was overall felt in the last act; the (sort of?) romance was rushed, the dramatic climax and subsequent resolution also too hasty (especially given the buildup that goes nowhere from the first 300 pages or so–to say nothing of the many, many loose ends). That said, the overall impact of The Bear and the Nightingale is substantial–and I enjoyed it very much.
Strongly recommended for those looking for a standalone fantasy novel of the fairytale persuasion.
It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.
That evening, the old lady sat in the best place for talking: in the kitchen, on the wooden bench beside the oven. This oven was a massive affair built of fired clay, taller than a man and large enough that all four of Pyotr Vladimirovich’s children could have fit easily inside. The flat top served as a sleeping platform; its innards cooked their food, heated their kitchen, and made steam-baths for the sick.
“What tale will you have tonight?” Dunya inquired, enjoying the fire at her back. Pyotr’s children sat before her, perched on stools. They all loved stories, even the second son, Sasha, who was a self-consciously devout child, and would have insisted—had anyone asked him—that he preferred to pass the evening in prayer. But the church was cold, the sleet outside unrelenting. Sasha had thrust his head out-of-doors, gotten a faceful of wet, and retired, vanquished, to a stool a little apart from the others, where he sat affecting an expression of pious indifference.
The others set up a clamor on hearing Dunya’s question: “Finist the Falcon!”
“Ivan and the Gray Wolf!” “Firebird! Firebird!”
Little Alyosha stood on his stool and waved his arms, the better to be heard over his bigger siblings, and Pyotr’s boarhound raised its big, scarred head at the commotion.
But before Dunya could answer, the outer door clattered open and there came a roar from the storm without. A woman appeared in the doorway, shaking the wet from her long hair. Her face glowed with the chill, but she was thinner than even her children; the fire cast shadows in the hollows of cheek and throat and temple. Her deep-set eyes threw back the firelight. She stooped and seized Alyosha in her arms.
The child squealed in delight. “Mother!” he cried. “Matyushka!” Marina Ivanovna sank onto her stool, drawing it nearer the blaze.
Alyosha, still clasped in her arms, wound both fists around her braid. She trembled, though it was not obvious under her heavy clothes. “Pray the wretched ewe delivers tonight,” she said. “Otherwise I fear we shall never see your father again. Are you telling stories, Dunya?”
“If we might have quiet,” said the old lady tartly. She had been Marina’s nurse, too, long ago.
“I’ll have a story,” said Marina at once. Her tone was light, but her eyes were dark. Dunya gave her a sharp glance. The wind sobbed outside. “Tell the story of Frost, Dunyashka. Tell us of the frost-demon, the winter-king Karachun. He is abroad tonight, and angry at the thaw.”
Rating: 8 – Excellent
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