A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.
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.
The Bear and the Nightingale is Russian folklore, fairy tales, and fantasy for a modern audience. It is a beguiling debut novel from Katherine Arden. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rich future ahead of her as a writer.
I was enthralled. As a Christian, I must say that you cannot read this book without pulling all of your hair out unless you understand that it is based upon the medieval beliefs of the Russian people. A people that experienced Christianization but whom never fully eradicated their pagan beliefs.
While the church is a large part of the story, The Bear and the Nightingale doesn’t portray the true church. The primary “Christian” that we are introduced to is Konstantin, often addressed as Batyuska, meaning “little father”, a respectful address for Orthodox ecclesiastics. Konstantin is fighting his own battle to understand God. Throughout the majority of the book, he is possessed by a demon. When the demon is gone, Konstantin is lost and bewildered. Therefore, there isn’t a true tension between the two belief systems. It is more like one magic in opposition to another magic. It is the quintessential folktale and needs to be read as such.
I loved the story and look forward to reading further books by Arden.
I received a review copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased review. My thanks to the author and publisher.