I went into this novel knowing that it was a fairy tale retelling, but what I got was an incredible dark fairy tale woven together with dozens of Russian myths. The Bear and the Nightingale was a pleasant surprise and a pleasure to read. The world building in this book is absolutely phenomenal.
The setting is historic Russia bursting at the seams with supernatural elements. The world is full of demons and other spirits, each with their own beliefs and ways of life. I liked that even though many of the spirits were kindly to Vasya, they all weren’t necessarily good in the way you would expect. Some were even a little bit frightening and not all that friendly toward humans. It truly felt like the world had a certain order that was much bigger and centuries older than humanity. The atmosphere was fantastic and I got a real sense of the unknown while reading.
“Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”
Vasya, eventually dubbed the Wild Maiden, really was spirited and free and I loved her character. The characters in this book are extremely complicated and well developed. I got a real sense of family reading about the Petrovna children. The priest Konstantin was also a fascinating character, he becomes Vasya’s foil and he gave me some serious Claude Frollo vibes. Even though he was frustrating and obviously a negative force for Vasya, I almost liked his character in a way and wanted him to be corrupted, which was what made the book and its characters so brilliant. The two represented the central conflict of the story: religion. The gradual shift from the mythical Slavic tradition of old to the new religion blazing a trail across Eurasia: Christianity. The clash between religions was the driving force of the story and it was incredible from start to finish.
I know that it’s still early to call it, but this might just end up being one of my favorite books of the year. I was shocked to find while writing this that The Bear and the Nightingale is the first in a planned trilogy. I’m not entirely sure where the story can go from here, but I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on the series in the future.
Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
Format: ARC / Ebook
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.