A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.
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 transforms Russia into a fantasy realm. Although Russia is real and it exists in our world, in this book Russia may as well be Middle Earth. I believe this aspect is the book’s distinguished strength, for it truly sets it apart from other fantasy. Many other fantasy series implement myth and gods and folktales in their stories. Katherine Arden brings them to life.
Winter and Land lives and breathes among men; sometimes visible, sometimes not. They bring life. They bring death. Through them the story accents gravity and mortality. These supernatural yet natural elements desperately matter. Nature and its creatures may destroy or protect the people among them, and this is the center of conflict. I held a deep interest in these creatures, for they share such a dependent relationship with humans yet lead lives all their own. They connect us to the other realm. They take us by the hand and draw us into the land of fairytale.
This book is not only a fairytale, but somewhat of a history lesson as well. We experience the Russian way of life as it was in the Middle Ages. Who is lord? Who serves this lord? What is the lot of women? What do they believe and how does this affect the culture? How many ways can the wilderness kill you? We learn all these things. In this, The Bear and the Nightingale is quite similar to The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, where we are intimately acquainted with life in turn of the century China (a classic Pulitzer prize winner and excellent read, I must note). Culture and belief are in a time of transition; traditions are waning or lost, children grow up in a different world than their mothers and grandmothers, and relations to the land decline. This educational nature adds an extra layer of pleasure.
If you have ever ventured into remote wilderness in the night, you know how the experience can terrify you senseless. This book may frighten you. Spooks creep. Demons lurk. Is that a tree or a spectre? What just moved? Who or what is following you? Did you really just hear something? Which way is home? It is oh so cold. And your fear threatens to swallow you. When you read, this is where you are.
An air of mystery propels the novel. Riddles roll us through the story, and we discover secret upon secret. The journey compelled me to turn page after page, and yet the end felt not enough for me. While the ending was by no means poor, the bulk of the novel behind outshined it. I am loath to say more, lest I alter the reader’s experience and affect perception.
Katherine Arden’s writing style pleased me, she felt seasoned and practiced. I could also feel her passion for her tale, and I am with her. I intend to read more of this series, for this was an impressive debut novel and it enchanted me.
I received a free copy of this book from Del Rey in exchange for an honest review.