January 9, 2017

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Publication Date: January 10, 2017

Source: Vine

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 nearer, 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 a stunning literary fantasy. Set in medieval Russia (when exactly I am not sure), Arden’s vivid writing brings to life various Russian fairy tales, including Vasilisa the Beautiful, and old folklore about invisible spirits found in nature.

Our Vasilisa is not exactly beautiful; in fact, she is described as ugly, but full of irrepressible curiosity and fearlessness. She is a bit feral and hard to contain in her proper place as a young woman. Predictably, she frequently gets in trouble. Strong and independent, she is also different from everyone else in one key way – she sees and interacts with the spirits guarding her family’s house, stables, the river and other places – spirits which no one else can see. Except for her stepmother, who is convinced that they are demons. Vasilisa befriends these spirits but gets blamed by the fanatical new priest in the village for all the terrible things that start happening.

Although Arden’s detailed grasp of Russian culture and history enhances the core story, I found that there were chapters that seemed extraneous. There is a lengthy digression to events that seem to only peripherally involve Vasilisa, including one about her brother that I thought was going to gain in significance but did not surface again.  These parts could have been excised for a much tighter narrative that focused on our protagonist’s journey.

Despite these chapters, however, I found The Bear and the Nightingale to be an immersive experience – I could almost feel the chill of a Russian winter as I read.

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