Category: Literary Fiction Fantasy
Author: Katherine Arden
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Del Rey, division of Penguin Random House
Pub Date: January 10, 2017
Summary of Publisher:
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.
- From Goodreads
I was unaware of this book before it arrived to me, not only as a pleasant surprise but also as a curiosity. In reading its title, The Bear and the Nightingale, I had first thought the book was meant to be a children’s story targeted to middle-school children and that perhaps I had received the book in error.
But, gladly after having read it, the book became much more like a refreshing blessing, a way for me to return to my natural love of reading as I did when I was a child who had first learned how to read. I came to a fresh love of reading again—a reading with new eyes.
The gift of oral stories is that they are passed down from one generation to the next, and here, the novel is an entire, oratory gift; a written narrative of legend and Russian folklore, beautifully and masterfully written by a young, debut novelist.
The book itself, begins as a re-telling of folklore that has passed down through the ages; a way in which to entertain and engage the children by the heat of the stove, distract from the cold and bleakness of winter, and a way to keep the stories alive, both as a reminder of old ways—and as a way of warning.
What begins as a distant, fairytale narrative slowly transforms into the story itself with characters of this world and elsewhere intermingling in a fight first for common survival—from working the land, keeping the hearth, and providing daily sustenance—to maintaining and gaining religious and spiritual territory as a way of thinking, living, and thriving not only in the land, but hopefully throughout the ages.
It is a coming-of-age tale of a young girl who inherits her grandmother’s special, occult gifts, but is ostracized for them: her innate comfort and oneness with nature, her gift of sight for things unseen, and her ability to hear, speak, and connect with animals and mystical creatures as harshly judged and whispered by those in her community.
The characters are wonderfully vivid and unique, from the book’s central heroine, Vasilisa (Varsya), daughter of Pyotr Vladimorovich and Marina Ivanova, a young woman whose independent personality and headstrong temperament goes beyond the accepted roles of a woman in medieval Russia; to the frantic paranoia and maddening cruelty of Varsya’s stepmother, Anna Ivanova; to the zealous and self-righteous priest of extremism, who hides his own terrible secret.
But, what is most breathtaking about this tale of a novel, is its imaginative fantasy and magic, this other-worldly setting of startling frost, its beauty, but also its enticing danger, and the other-worldly creatures whose integrity and existence resides in the faith and actions of the townspeople towards them.
The original depiction of such fantastical creatures as the Domovoi, whose small squat and long beard resides in an oven, to the majesty of speaking stallions, and the regality, strength, and grace of Karochun, also known as Morozko, Winter-King, a death-god whose voice is the winter wind, are exceptional examples of such natural and effective writing that they become real and believable.
But, this is no fairytale for young children or the faint-hearted. What begins as an idyllic and pastoral setting and plot devolves quite graphically into dark and horrifying evil and the tests, destruction, and decay it brings, not only on the land, but to the spirit of the living—and the dead.
I moved from being mildly curious to quickly enthralled, intrigued, and then petrified.
This novel is more than its telling, a book layered with themes of oral history, folklore, historical acuity, political and religious power, spiritualism, magic, superstition, female empowerment, the perpetual fight between good and evil, faith, resilience, and of course, love—including self-love.
It’s a glorious book of storytelling, one that will haunt and mystify its readers for a long time after it’s done.
Characters: 5 stars
Plot: 5 stars
Language/Narrative: 5 stars
Dialogue: 5 stars
Pacing: 5 stars
Cover Design: 3.5 stars
A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of Del Rey for providing me with a copy of The Bear and the Nightingale, in exchange for an honest review.
About the Author:
Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.
- From the Penguin Random House website.