Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publication Date: Jan 17, 2017
I received a review copy from the publisher through NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion in any way.
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.
What a strange tale this was! I have never read any Russian folklore so I plan to remedy that in the near future because I’m more than a little curious about where the author got her inspiration for this book.
The setting was rustic and weirdly magical; magical in a way that was oddly present yet hardly acknowledged by the side characters. The main character, Vasilia, is a bit of an outsider even amongst her family due in part to the gifts she may or may not have inherited from her mother who is deceased. Her family has very close ties to the royal family in Moscow so her dad is able to go there and seek a wife. He is ‘given’ a wife of royal blood who is fiercely devout and is determined to rid the household and the community of all the household spirits which the people openly honor with gifts of food. Doing so with the help of a priest who is convinced that he is being told what to do by the voice of God, they manage to drive out most of these spirits that were protecting this community and all sort of mishaps ensue. It is up to Vasilia to save herself, her family, her community and their way of life.
This tale was told in a way that in itself was magical and atmospheric. The prose is lyrical and the setting is cold, somewhat dark and forbidding with an eeriness about it that compels the reader to keep turning the pages. It clearly demonstrates how fear can cause us to do things to the detriment of others and how bravery is not just about being physically able but being strong of spirit and mind, doing what needs to be done even when the odds are stacked highly against us.
The characters were really brought to life through the descriptive prose and the flowing dialogue.The world is almost tangible and easy to visualise yet with a sense of mystery and awe at the subtle magical elements woven into everyday life. In that aspect, I felt it really played ode to classical fairy tales whilst putting its own unique twist to make it something new and wonderful.
The writing and pacing does take some time getting used to so I had to make an effort to get through the first couple of chapters but was very much rewarded for this effort.
I enjoyed and savoured every word and hope to read more in this vein from this author soon.