The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published by: Del Rey
Publication Date: January 10th 2017
Genre: Adult Fantasy/Historical Fiction
Pages: 336 pages
Format: Physical ARC (Bookcon)
HUGE thanks to Del Rey & Katherine Arden for the ARC copy of The Bear and the Nightingale at Bookcon.
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 weaves the tale of Vasilisa, a child who grew up listening to the Russian Fairy Tales told by her nurse every night. Tales of the blue-eyed demon and the belief that honoring the house spirits would offer protection from the demon were taken seriously. Everyone in the village would leave out milk & bread to the house spirits in hopes to ward away the evil. The difference between everyone else & Vasilisa however, is that these tales were true and she is known as what is called a seer. Vasilisa’s mother who died in childbirth knew that she was leaving behind a very special girl. A girl that one day would be needed & as such she asked that her husband take much care of Vasilisa. When the tales/demons of Vasilisa’s childhood begin to come to life and threaten her village, she is the only one who could fight the impending war. Many years later, Vasilisa’s father is advised to re-marry in order to provide his daughter with a woman to guide her in life. Her father who was still very much devoted to the memory of his late wife, decided to take this advice and travel to Moscow where he was to find a wife…and here is where all of Vasilisa’s troubles begin…In a village where she is viewed as a witch and the people are easily swayed to convert to christianity, Vasilisa herself must be weary of a witch hunt while trying to protect the entire village.
Besides the lush world building (see writing & thoughts) in The Bear and the Nightingale, the characters quickly turned out to be some of my favorites. Our female protagonist Vasilisa hasn’t had an easy life, losing her mom on the day she was born and her seer abilities have ensured a challenging road for her. I immediately loved Vasilisa, compared by many to a wood sprite, she loved running into the woods where she would lose track of time. Vasilisa was able to see the spirits in her home as well as in the woods and the water. She maintained a good relationship with them all, many times bringing them offerings to keep them peaceful and in high spirits. She refused to be treated like a maiden & opted instead to wear her brothers clothes. If given the opportunity, she would also carry daggers like her brothers. I loved her spirit and kindness, the warrior in her made me root for her and smile whenever she got her way. The sibling relationship between Vasilisa & her brothers and sisters was interesting & at times fun to read. Vasilisa was very fond of her siblings but i particularly enjoyed seeing her relationship with her brother Alyoshka. He absolutely knew that Vasilisa was not meant to be tied to a man bearing children. As much as he feared for her safety, he also respected her free spirit and was the only one to believe her no matter what. The witty banter between these two also got a few chuckles out of me. The relationship between Vasilisa & her father on the other hand is a bit more complex. He loves his daughter & doesn’t resent her for the death of her mother (the love of his life) but he also would like if she could conform to tradition & be wed. Of course, he knows each of his children and knows that Vasilisa settling down is a challenge he can’t see himself taking on by himself. This man is as old school Russian as they get, yet he himself realized that Vasilisa doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional wife. Some may say that he wasn’t a good dad because of certain scenes where he went old school on her with a “thrashing” whenever she would disappear for days into the woods. I saw the good & the bad in this man burdened by traditions and the fact that he is a Lord of the lands with a reputation to maintain. A widow with a house full of daughters & sons to raise and marry off to ensure their good futures. I didn’t enjoy certain scenes but I saw what the author was giving us… a complex man, flaws & all who loves all of his children and fears seeing any one of them alone. Dunya who is Vasilia’s nurse is hands down my new Grandma! not only can she spin a good tale by the oven in the middle of winter, but she loves all of the kids as hard as she loved their mother when she was her nurse. Last but not least we have the house spirits who all serve their own purpose. All of the different house & wood spirits take offerings whether it be food or blood. The Vazila, a little old man that lives in the horse stables in essence is the soul of all horses and was my favorite of all the spirits. Add talking horses to these amazing characters & it just doesn’t get better than this cast ❤
The Bear & The Nightingale is the ultimate cozy read which I found ideal for this winter season. Every time I opened this book & entered the village and home of Vasilisa, I found it incredibly hard to leave. This book is atmospheric, lush in Russian folklore, culture, and language. The world building is insanely magical and transcending, from the scenes in the woods to the scenes in this families home. There’s plenty about this world to gush about but I really think that it would take away from your reading experience if I were to include it in this review. Some things are just better to discover on your own, I promise you will not be disappointed with all the interesting characters both alive & not so alive that you’ll encounter along the way 😉
I’ve never been to Russia, but this author has lived & studied in Moscow and it’s clear to me that she truly loves & appreciates its culture. The well fleshed out characters made me connect further with this story & that’s key for me whenever i’m reading no matter the genre. The cover for this book captures the heart of the story…Vasilia’s home which is what she chose to protect. The strong familial bonds between Vasilisa and each of her family members was a major focal point & made this into a Fairy Tale of its own. Lastly, I appreciated that nothing was rushed especially not the ending. Instead we see the framework set down for the continuation of Vasilia’s adventure since this is book 1 in an Adult Fantasy trilogy. I am BEYOND excited & READY to go back into this world…kind of hoping that we see book 2 this Fall *fingers crossed*