The Bear and the Nightingale
By: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: January 10th, 2017
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.
Drawing from Russian fairy tales, The Bear and the Nightingale is poetic and atmospheric. It immerses you in the warm drafts from the large stoves in the izbas and the biting chill of the snowy woods and harsh nights. It endears you to the half wild Vasya and the warm love she has for her family and builds an air of apprehension and suspicion that is fostered by the chilly setting.
Vasya is strong willed and independent, a force of nature that mimics the Russian countryside she inhabits. She is feisty, and seems attuned to, almost seamlessly blending with, nature. With her grandmother’s powers, Vasya cares for the protective spirits around her home, helping her world stay in balance. She also communicates with the animals around her, learning from them as she puts them at ease. Her character is contrasted by her hateful stepmother, who can also see the spirits and guardians and demons but approaches them in an entirely different way, and a fiery new priest, both of whom threaten the existence of these protectors and open up their small village to an evil that is more than ready to take advantage of their weakness.
The story, beyond its reflection of Russian folklore, is a lyrical battle of opposites, ones that have a fantastical air in the narrative but will feel familiar and recognizable in this coming of age tale. Admittedly, I struggled to get into The Bear and the Nightingale, the plot moves slowly at first and I kept putting the story down and picking it up over a span of several months. However, once the plot began to pick up speed and everything was set in motion, the story had me hooked.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us. An advanced copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.