REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel by Katherine Arden
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 marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles nearer, 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.
Dear Ms Arden,
The title and cover of this book were so interesting that they made me stop and consider but the excerpt got me to request it with crossed fingers. This, I knew, would be something different. Fourteenth century Rus’ – nope, I don’t see too many books with that setting. This is a basically new-or-pretty–to-me time and setting so I was doing a lot of online searching about people, things, cities and situations mentioned: Tsargrad, Sarai, Tatar invasion, Golden Horde, Kievan Rus’, Grand Dukes of Moscow and the Russian household spirits who play such an important part in the story.
At first all seems normal with the story starting by the hearth of a rustic household, north of Moscow still in the grip of winter. It’s a very evocative presentation of place and time: still an era and location when fairy tales are almost believed – and told lovingly by an elderly retainer to all gathered near a huge fire late in the evening. Soon though, hints beyond just an old nurse’s fairy tales begin to color the story. But it takes until the dreaded stepmother character arrives before things really get interesting. From the blurb, I had gathered she would just put her foot down about her new family’s old fashioned nonsense. In reality her reason for forbidding observance of the Old Ways is far more complex.
She is joined by a fanatical Orthodox priest who sees it as his mission from God to root out and eliminate any traces of dvoeverie (double faith) that still happily coexist with Christianity in his flock. Konstantin fights against the peoples’ continued belief in their old Slavic mythology. They were quite happy adding Christianity to this rather than replacing it. This way they covered all their bases with Christianity offering salvation and a blissful after life while the household and forest spirits got you through this one.
It’s only then that it becomes clear how real all of these beings are and how vital their support is to surviving a short summer much less a harsh Rus’ winter. The folk of Lesnaye Zemlya might leave offerings for the chyerty but it is Vasilisa Petrovna who sees and talks with them and thus Vasya – most of the characters have several nicknames – who feels the full weight of her stepmother’s and the priest’s disapproval. It is Vasya who knows something is going wrong and who first quietly then actively steps up to try and fix things. We all know what historically is usually thought of and what happens to females who are seen as “different.” Her father and nurse might have tried to shield her but Vasya is a chosen one by forces which can’t be denied.
Then all hell breaks loose and it’s (mainly) up to Vasya to save the day. During the somewhat slow build up to the final confrontation scenes, I found myself urging the story on and getting antsy for more to happen. The pace allows lots of time to see life in this remote village but after a while, I’d seen about all there seemed to be. Even the brief sojourn to Moscow didn’t show that much and a lot of time was spent on character development for one of Vasya’s brothers that ultimately went nowhere.
Once things kicked into action, Vasya and her supporters were as brave and determined as any rag tag band ever was. The sacrifice made by one character was deeply moving. Vasya’s choice for her future is one I thought she’d engineer and goes back to her passionate defense of making choices herself rather than living a lifetime of being told what to do. Despite the slowness, the story is rich in atmosphere and opened a new world of mythology as well as a vivid setting for me to explore. B-