The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – REVIEW
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 honour 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 honouring 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.
“Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”
This is my second time reading The Bear and the Nightingale this year and it was just as incredible. It has definitely become one of my favourite books and I could already read it again. The elements of Russian folklore create a dark fairytale that is hauntingly lyrical, and the world-building reflects the depth of the author’s research and imagination. The setting feels so real that you can imagine stepping into the book and landing in a snow-covered Russian forest full of magic and mystery.
“Am I a child? Always someone else must decide for me. But this I will decide for myself.”
The characters are fully fleshed out and relatable. Vasya’s independence is at odds with the social constrictions placed upon women who are “born for a cage, after all: convent or house, what else is there?”. It is the magic Vasya inherited from her grandmother that allows her to challenge these gender norms. I loved Vasya’s relationship with horses, her ability to talk to them and skilfully ride bareback. Vasya’s interactions with the different Chyerti are fascinating, and Vazila the horse spirit was one of my favourite characters. As a battle rages between the old religion and the new, and the Chyerti fade due to lack of faith, the charismatic Father Konstantin arrives. Konstantin represents the new religion, and the fear and desire he feels for Vasya is a very dangerous thing for everyone.
“Solovey will take me to the ends of the earth if I ask it. I am going into the world, Alyosha. I will be no one’s bride, neither of man nor of God. I am going to Kiev and Sarai and Tsargrad, and I will look upon the sun on the sea.”
Alongside this tension between the old and new religion, there is the impending threat of the Bear, brother of the Winter-King, Morozko. The Bear feeds on fear and harnesses the divisiveness Father Konstantin creates. The relationship between Vasya and Morozko was particularly intriguing and I’m looking forward to it being explored further in the next book. The sibling relationships are one of my favourite aspects, and I especially loved the bond between Vasya and Alyosha. I also hope we see more of Sasha in the sequel. The Bear and the Nightingale is one of those books that quickly become a treasured favourite and I’m diving straight into my ARC of The Girl in the Tower.
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