The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
Published January 10, 2017
From Goodreads: 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 had seen this book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, but for some reason, despite the fact that the cover art is so simple and beautiful, I didn’t pay it much mind until Danielle over at Books, Vertigo and Tea read and loved it. I put in a request for it via my library’s digital library and fortunately did not have to wait terribly long for it to arrive.
This is an amazing book, and all the more so because it’s Arden’s debut novel. It takes place in the northern reaches of late medieval Russia, deep in the forest where winters are long and harsh and summer is short but beautiful. Though they are Christian, the people pay homage to the old spirits of the forest, and so they are protected from the demonic forces that would bring them misery and death. When Vasilisa’s father brings home his new, very devout wife who in turn summons a new priest to minister to the people, the old ways are frowned upon. The protective spirits are weakened, allowing the demonic forces to rise up, threatening to bring destruction upon them all.
Vasilisa, or Vasya and she’s usually called in the book, is easily my favorite heroine I’ve encountered this year. She’s smart and strong, and though her appearance is captivating to those who would claim her for their own, she’s never described as particularly beautiful. Our heroines are almost always beautiful, as though their inner strength must always translate into outer beauty, so it’s nice to see a heroine who isn’t gorgeous by default. Rather, her strength comes from her ability to see and accept the spirits around her– the ones that appear in children’s stories, but are largely dismissed by adults. Because Vasya can see the spirits and doesn’t see them as malevolent creatures (as her step-mother Anna does), she talks to them and learns all sorts of things, like how to ride horses and move quickly and silently through the forest. It is not entirely a gift, though, as Vasya’s abilities make her desirable to the demon looming at the edge of Winter. It gives her courage, though, and it is Vasya’s courage that see her through danger, especially when the villagers are set against her.
The rest of the characters are wonderfully written, too. Even those who are largely against Vasya and her wildness are sympathetically rendered, and instead of hating them for their intransigence, I felt sorry for them. The step-mother, Anna, for example, is a prisoner of her circumstances, sold into marriage when she wanted nothing more than to become a nun, she sees demons everywhere except for the churches she find sanctuary in. All she has in her life is her faith and her young daughter, and she would do anything to please God and her priest and protect her child– to the point where she would sacrifice Vasya. The priest, Konstantin, is also a victim of his circumstances. He quickly falls for Vasya- though it’s hard to say if that feeling is lust or love- but his situation will not allow him to act upon his wishes, and so he condemns Vasya for being what he cannot be- wild and free.
The pacing of this book is solid throughout, except perhaps for one section, where Vasya’s father Pyotr takes his two elder sons to Moscow to present them at court and find himself a new wife. There are a few bits I could have done without, or that might have been a bit shorter. But now that I’m thinking about it, the section where Vasya’s brother Sasha visits a monastery might actually be necessary to show the strength of the Christian faith to the people of Rus’. That is pretty much my only gripe with the story, though, and it’s so minor overall.
Arden’s writing is beautiful throughout, blending Russian fairytales, history, and Christian lore into a gorgeous story that I both wanted to finish in a hurry (so I could find out what happened) and linger over (because the world is so intricate and realistic). Vasya is a hero who can defend her family and her people in spite of their hostility to her nature. She refuses to be anything but true to herself even when it causes conflict with her father, because she knows she’s doing the right thing.
The end of The Bear and the Nightingale leaves things open to more adventures for Vasya, and there is indeed a second book due out next January- The Girl in the Tower. It’s already on my To Be Read list, and you can bet I’ll be picking up a copy as soon as I can!