Blending Russian fairy tales and modern concepts, The Bear and The Nightingale transports the reader to the dark forests and hearths of medieval Rus’ where spirits both great and small still linger. Though slow to start, this atmospheric book lays bare the weaknesses of people everywhere – that fear can consume us and our worst demons rule us.
In the northern region of medieval Rus’ winter’s cold stretches for most of the year. Into this unrelenting landscape is born Vasilisa, the last daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich and his first wife Marina. When Marina passes away during child birth, the raising of Vasya falls to their mother’s old nursemaid and her older siblings.
Without her mother to rein her in, Vasya grows up wild and head strong – more likely to be found out roaming the forest than attending to her mending. Having inherited the gifts of her grandmother, she can see and hear what others cannot. All around her people are spirits of the house who protect them in exchange for gifts of crust or milk. In the forest live their more dangerous brethren who might confuse a travel into wandering the forest lost until they die or drown them in a pool to feed off their fear. Vasya speaks to them and knows them all.
Unable to control his youngest child and eager to seek a match for his eldest daughter, Pyotr travels to Moscow. When he returns with a devout and fearful second wife, Vasya’s carefree childhood comes to an abrupt end. Seeing evil everywhere in the remote settlement, Vasya’s stepmother Anna grows harsher and harsher when dealing with her wayward stepdaughter.
Into this comes Konstantin, a charismatic and plagued priest who is determined to make the inhabitants of the remote settlement fearful of god. Believing Vasya is willingly tempting him from his vows and falling prey to the whispers of an impostor deity, Konstantin feeds the flames of Anna’s fears. Together they forbid the following of the old ways and so starve out the helpful household spirits that Vasya has come to realize only she can see. With the weakening of the spirits comes the faltering of the defenses the settlement unknowingly relies on, and so starts the beginning of their struggles.
Facing cold, starvation, and death, Vasya must defy her family and their way of life in order to protect them all. In the face of this hatred and rejected by her own people, Vasya maintains integrity and bravery in the face of terrifying ordeals that would cower grown adults. A strong and vibrant girl, she refuses to bow to the conventions of her time and be limited by a traditionally defined woman’s role.
Despite a slow beginning which focuses on the origins of Vasya, her family, and the culture and political climate of medieval Rus’, once this book gets going it roars to the end. Stick with it, you won’t regret it.
Rating: ★★★★☆ 4 stars
The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Publication Date: January 10, 2017 by Del Rey
Hardcover, 336 pages