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.
I received an eARC of The Bear and the Nightingale from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
At last! I finally crossed this historical fantasy off my TBR.
Set in the Middle Ages, in what is now Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale follows Vasya from her birth through her girlhood as she comes of age in a village that is growing away from their old beliefs to Christianity, encouraged by the fervour of a new priest who terrifies them with eternal damnation. Vasya is one of the rare few who has the sight, the ability to see fae-like creatures from Russian folklore, and it’s up to her to protect her village when her neighbours’ growing disbelief in these creatures puts them all in danger.
It astounds me that this is a debut novel, because it’s so beautifully written. It’s such a slow-moving, lyrical book, and yet I still found it to be such a quick read once I got into the swing of the story.
There’s such lovely attention to historical detail throughout this novel. Arden hasn’t chosen medieval Russia as her setting and then written 21st century people in medieval costumes, instead these people feel like people who belong in this era. They sleep close to the oven in winter to stay warm, and I loved the descriptions of their food, and what time of year certain foods were available, that made the setting come to life. It feels like Arden has done her research, which is understandable considering her degree is in French and Russian!
The story itself, if we strip everything back, isn’t all that original. Girls who love nature and fight the patriarchy aren’t strangers to the historical fiction genre, but it’s written so well that none of that matters. In fact I love how, through Vasya, Arden explores just how fragile masculinity has been throughout the history of the world; we have the fervent priest who hates Vasya because he desires her (he’s essentially a Russian Frollo – only younger) and an older man Vasya is almost married to until he decides against the marriage essentially because she can ride his horse better than he can.
Seriously. Masculinity is so fragile.
Arden does stray away from a lot of the tropes I’m tired of seeing, though. The priest desires Vasya, but we never have a scene between the two of them where Vasya is threatened with sexual assault. That doesn’t mean he’s not an uncomfortable character to read, but Vasya refuses to be afraid of him and I love that about her.
Having said that, as much as this is very much a story inspired by fairy tales and folklore I do think it’s a shame Vasya gets an ‘evil stepmother’. Arden isn’t entirely unkind to Anna, Vasya’s father’s second wife, and there are certainly moments where we can empathise with her; for example, Vasya’s father, Pyotr, isn’t an unkind man, but there are times when he’s very dumb. He’s quite a bit older than Anna, and after they’re married he notices she often cries in bed but just thinks, ‘whelp, guess I’ll just keep having sex with her’.
No Pyotr! Use your words and talk to your wife, who’s literally only a few years older than your oldest children.
Anna does ultimately become the traditional evil stepmother and, considering she and Vasya actually have something in common it would have been nice to see the two of them overcome their mutual dislike of one another to become allies.
I also felt like the book wrapped up a little too quickly. That said, this entire novel feels like a prologue to the rest of the series and I really appreciate that Arden doesn’t rush anything. She takes her time to tell the story she wants to tell, and if this is her debut then I’m very excited to see what the rest of the series holds!