The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
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.
When I heard about this book last year, I knew I wanted to read it and I even bought it in May but seeing as it was very obviously a winter read, I waited. A very long time! Finally, in December, I had it marked down on my monthly tbr and then Mridula from Ecstatic yet Chaotic had a readalong planned for this series. That’s just a wonderful chance, right? I joined right away.
Thus I finally read the book and I am so glad that I read it in December when there’s some semblance of cold climate in Mumbai because this book absolutely needs to be read in a cold weather, with some cosy setup. This turned out to be one of the best books I have read this year in terms of atmosphere and just dreaming up characters. I think Uprooted and Spinning Silver managed that in best way possible earlier in the year but this…this stands with them equally tall, trust me.
This mash-up of Russian folk tales with an incredible atmospheric is a debut and that’s something I am still trying to wrap my mind around. With such control and skill, Arden managed to make me fall in love with the characters, the setting, the plot.
I want to talk about atmosphere of the book some more because frankly, this one makes you feel the cold as you read along. Admittedly, I am not very knowledgeable in Russian history and I did have to look up some things but Arden writes in such way that it almost seemed as if I knew about it but had sort of forgotten those things. It has such an aesthetic to it all, Russian winter with folktales and magical forests and the way everything just works. I fell in love with it and frankly, I can’t wait to read the next two books.
Let’s talk about the characters! They are so well-written and so fleshed out. Even the secondary characters made such an impact on me, Vasya’s siblings, her father, the priest who comes to their village. All of them play important parts but can be considered secondary characters. They had flaws and they had their love and ambition and pride, it all shone so beautifully. Then we come to the ‘villains’, Vasya’s stepmother, Anna, is such a nuanced character, we can see her troubled mind and her need for solace so clearly. I wanted to dislike her so much but in the end, all I felt was pity for her. All she needed was some comfort.
Finally, we come to Vasilisa herself. I absolutely loved her character and how the character growth unfolded. It was such a delight to read. A girl who is equal parts loved and exasperated by her family, she has such a drive within her to be as free and wild as the nature surrounding her. We see her as she’s treated unkindly by her stepmother, as she’s rebuked time and again by her family. Her wish to be free becomes only fiercer as the time passes. For the most part, Vasilisa does not contribute to the story in major ways but in small ways, she’s building herself up to be the young woman who’d do anything to save her family.
A dark fairytale, The Bear and the Nigtingale has a lot of themes running throughout the book. However majorly, I saw how religion could change the lives of humans and how religion is misused so often. I also got the same feeling from Vasilisa’s longing for the forest as the one I got from Tolkien’s writings, the same fierce love for nature. How the people are changing it for the worse and how it’s affecting them.
Overall, I absolutely enjoyed every page of this book and would definitely recommend it to everyone who enjoys a good fairytale. It’s dark, there are morally dubious people, there’s magical forests and little folk and there’s a stepmother and there is a simply wonderful fairytale.