Published: January 10, 2017
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 336 (Hardcover)
My Rating: 4.5/5.0
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 one of those beautiful books that make the world seem magical again, even to slightly cynical adults like me. It makes me want run through the forest with wild abandon, peeking under rocks and streams for leshiye and rusalka. It brings a subtle magic to our world, or in this particular case, the world of 14th century Russia (then called Rus).
This story follows young Vasya as she grows from a motherless babe to a wild girl with the second sight, allowing her to commune with folkloric creatures present in her everyday life. Her family alternately tolerates her esoteric ways and is beside themselves at her unladylike actions. Vasya’s stepmother is stereotypically cruel, beating Vasya, attempting to foist her on any accepting suitor, and setting about seemingly impossible tasks for her. Fortunately Vasya is made of sterner stuff than her city-born stepmother, so when she encounters Morozko, the winter king (aka Jack Frost), she is able to survive the encounter. There’s a great deal more to the story and this only just scratches the surface!
I really enjoyed this story, so much so that I’ll probably buy the physical book once it’s released. I love the early Russian setting- the history and mythology is extremely fascinating to me and this book has encouraged me to do some additional reading on this era. My one quibble is that the pacing is relatively slow near the beginning, though it didn’t make that part of the book any less vital to the telling of the story. Nothing was wasted here, but there were times when I thought Katherine Arden would never get around to what the story was actually about. I also have a small problem with the synopsis… the jewel necklace mentioned seems less important when you’re actually reading the book, so I can only assume that it might play a bigger role in future installments.
I highly recommend The Bear and the Nightingale to fantasy lovers and/or anyone with an interest in Russia/Slavic folklore. It’s a perfect read for those dark winter nights when snow is flying on the wind and the fire is stoked hot and bright. Basically, if it’s starting to feel like a Russian winter, you should probably grab this book and bundle up with your toasty socks and a mug of tea! This is the first book in a planned trilogy, so I have more lovely tales of Vasya to look forward to in the future.