I was incredibly worried I wouldn’t like this book. Everything about it seemed to scream my name and I was excited for it months before its publication. The cover was gorgeous (I have the US cover, although I like the UK version as well), the description sounded perfect, the early reviews and blurbs made me expect a magical realist tale of medieval Russia, with a strong-minded protagonist, Russian folklore, and beautiful prose. And – for once – the hype was completely justified and I got exactly what I wanted.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
by Katherine Arden
Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 322 pages
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.
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.
If I started reading The Bear and the Nightingale with some trepidation, all of it was gone by the end of the first page. Immediately, Katherine Arden builds this amazing atmosphere of Russian winter in the countryside, of a family huddled by the oven to keep warm, listening to stories about ghosts and household spirits and magic and myth. There is also an instant sense of how dangerous winter is, simply because it was cold, people depended on the food they had stocked, and if you are thin and weak, any day might be your last.
In one of those cold, cold winters, Marina finds out she is pregnant and unlikely to survive the pregnancy. But Marina’s blood runs with magic and she wishes to see her child born, a child to keep the magic alive. That child is Vasilisa, Vasya for short. The Bear and the Nightingale tells her story, but wrapped in layers and layers of beautiful world building. Starting from descriptions of the countryside and the changing seasons, over the many folktales and spirits, to the clash between the old beliefs and Christianity, everything is done to perfection.
The sense of underlying magic never leaves the narration, with effortlessly flowing, descriptive prose. Every chapter made me feel like I was there, smelling the horses in the stables, feeling the icy cold crawl under my clothes, and the dread of a night lost in the woods. As a sort of retelling of Father Frost, there is also an ancient evil to defeat, a prophecy, and a girl who can see folk spirits. But this plot stays in the background for most of the book, when a new priest comes to Vasya’s village, determined to make the people leave behind their old beliefs, and embrace God. But when people stop leaving offerings for household spirits, the spirits grow weak and cannot protect their homes. The crops go bad, the winters get harder, and it seems only Vasya is unafraid enough to go her own way and ignore the threat of hellfire.
But there is also a Cinderella-like sub-plot going on, when Pyotr, Vasya’s father, takes a new bride. She, too, can see spirits but is convinced they are demons or that she is mad. The fact that Vasya takes to them so naturally, is so anashamed and happy with her gift, makes her stepmother Anna angry and resentful. And when a new baby girl is born, lovely and beautiful, Anna becomes a proper fairy tale stepmother, although it must be mentioned that she is not evil. At least not for the sake of being evil.
In fact, every character, however minor, feels like a real, believable person. Their actions may not always be good, but they are understandable. Vasya stole my readerly heart so fast, I want to go back and start reading the book all over right now. Fantasy heroines have a tendency to be beautiful and perfect, even more so in books with a fairy tale vibe. But from her childhood, Vasya is always described as rather ugly, or at the very least plain. It is her spirit that draws people’s eye, that makes her attractive, that makes it hard to look away when she is around. Her wildness, her lust for freedom, for riding horses bareback, for running into the woods when grown men are afraid. I adored Vasya and I wish more protagonists were like her.
While I’m on my favorite bits, let’s talk about the prose. It is beautiful! Katherine Arden effortlessly paints pictures with her words and always seems to find the loveliest similes.
His voice was like thunder, yet he place every syllable like Dunya setting stitches.
The writing style is that mystical thing everybody seems to go for: accessible. But it is also so gorgeous you can read a sentence over and over and still not get tired of it. Characters have their own voices that set them apart, they notice different things when a chapter changes view point, and the writing shows all of that without interrupting the flow, without taking away from the atmosphere. I said “atmosphere” way too much already, but it really is one of the book’s strongest points. You start reading, you fall into this medieval world, and you forget to sleep and eat and other overrated stuff.
“All my life”, she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.
The only thing that could have diminished the reading experience for me was the ending, and Arden nailed that as well. Everything falls into place, just so, leaving enough room for the sequels (it’s a trilogy, yay!) but telling a standalone story with a satisfying, beautiful end. There were definitely moments where my eyes got a bit leaky, followed by me grinning like a fool and silently cheering Vasya on. And that last page was just utter perfection. If the second book is anything as good as this one, Katherine Arden has a new lifelong fan in me.
So if you like fairy tales, historical fiction infused with myth and magic, excellent characters and beautiful prose (and why on earth wouldn’t you?), then do yourself a favor and pick this up. Any hype you’ve heard is not based on marketing campaigns but on the simple truth that this book is brilliant!
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!
Beautiful on the inside and out… check out these covers (UK on the left, US on the righ):