This was the type of book you needed to read in a slow pace beside the crackling of a fireplace. No, seriously, it’s very reminiscent of old-world storytelling, and it was just so damn lovely. And lyrical. And filled with Russian fae-folk. And a badass girl who is not afraid to stare Death in the face. Literally.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
by Katherine Arden
Del Rey, January 2017
Fairy tale fantasy, historical
Rated: 4.5 / 5 cookies
e-ARC provided by NetGalley (thank you!)
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.
Okay, I’m a little late in reviewing this ARC, but I found myself wanting to savor the story, so I took a bit longer in the reading.
A Case of Russian Fairy Tales
I was recommended this book by NetGalley upon the insistence that if I had liked Uprooted by Naomi Novik, I would easily love this book, too. Well, I loved Uprooted, and The Bear and the Nightingale has a similar feel. Both books are drenched in Slavic fairy tales, they are both set in villages too close to a dangerous forest, and in some sense, they feature females who come into their power through sheer necessity. While Novik takes Uprooted to a fantasy world sandbox, Arden brings hers straight to Old World Russia, where villagers still give their thanks to household spirits.
“Let’s go to Sarai, Sashka!” She turned to look at him. “Or Tsargrad, or Buyan, where the sea-king lives with his daughter the swan-maiden. It is not too far. East of the sun, west of the moon.”
I loved that this book was filled with Russian folklore. And it was filled to the brim, I must say. Right from the beginning, Dunya launches into the story of Morozko, the Frost-Demon, and the maiden he was supposed to marry. Then, as though that wasn’t enough, a few other mini-stories litter the pages, producing a fabulously rendered backdrop of old Russia.
Pyotr’s house was alive with devils. A creature with eyes like coals hid in the oven. A little man in the bathhouse winked at her through the steam. A demon like a heap of sticks slouched around the dooryard.
Okay, I do have an obsession with fae folk. This stems from years of reading and writing about them. And it so happens that some of my favorite fae are Russian fae. The rusalka, the domovoi, the bannik…all of them feature in TBatN, and it made my giddy little heart squee with delight when these creatures were brought forth to become important figures within the story.
“Then she must have a husband,” said Dunya simply. “The sooner the better. Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, the bird-prince and the wicked sorcerer–they only come for the wild maiden.”
Not to mention the fact that the book reads very much like a fairy tale. It’s what you would expect from someone telling you a story by the fireside. It just has that kind of feel and poetry. Even the words and descriptions lend well to the type of narration Arden uses (limited, multiple POV), which, if found in a different type of story, might not work as beautifully as it did in this particular case.
Dread settled over the village: a clinging, muttering dread, tenacious as cobwebs.
Seriously, I can so imagine the dread, you guys.
“I’m not sure you’d like to live in the woods,” said Olga. “Baba Yaga might eat us.”
“No,” said Vasya, with perfect assurance. “There is only the one-eyed man. If we stay away from the oak-tree he will never find us.”
I love Vasya. She’s that type of female character who breaks societal norms, especially during the general time period (considering Russia is largely controlled by the Golden Horde, I’d say late 13th century at the earliest) where females are really only faced with two things: matrimony or the convent. Vasya is neither the marrying kind nor a convent girl, and she defies even her father for the type of freedom she wants. Also, she’s nice to horses. That’s always a plus. And while she’s not the type of girl to get tied down by any means, I wouldn’t object to her falling in love with a certain demon…um. Just saying.
“Because I am not Kaschei the Deathless,” said Olga with some asperity. “And I have no horse to outrun the wind.”
I will admit that The Bear and the Nightingale was a little slow to start, and most of it was really just an introduction to characters who disappeared a third into the book. I felt like there wasn’t much discussed regarding Olga at all after her marriage, which was a shame, because there could have been a lot done in Moscow in her perspective. Same with Sasha, who gets talked up so much that I was a little disappointed that we don’t get to see more of him after the halfway point.
You could even say that much of the introductory plot points are just a lead-up to later sequels (which is pretty much happening according to the author, who said that book #2 is already in the editing stages). This is great, because there are a ton of unanswered questions. Well, not so much questions as me going: “THAT CAN’T BE IT. I WANT MOOOORE.”
“Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”
“I still do not understand.”
“That does not mean you cannot learn.”
Seriously, though, if this isn’t a build-up to the sequel kind of quote, I don’t know what is.
But yes, other than that slow start, and perhaps the lack of action until the third part of the book, I thought the book captured old-school fairy telling perfectly. Arden had the mood and setting just right, and even the dark and scary bits were sufficiently dark and scary.
“The Bear is awake.”
“The shadow on the wall,” said the rusalka, breathing quickly. “The voice in the dark.”
For an evil spirit that inspires fear in the hearts of many, this description of him is spot on.
One by one, her family fell silent. Someone outside was crying. It was little more than a choked whimper, barely audible. But at length there could be no doubt–they heard the muffled sound of a woman weeping.
And NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE. I would be noping out of there so fast if I heard a woman crying outside my house in the dead of night.
4.5 out of 5 cookies! I kind of wished this was a standalone, but at the same time I really want to next book, if only to continue my ride along with Vasya.
This book counts as #3 of the Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge.
Have you read this book? What did you think?