The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
Then Vasya's father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.
But Vasya's stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village's defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has concealed - to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse's most frightening tales.
I have always loved folklore and fairy tales of all kinds, so naturally I've read my fair share of retellings and adaptations. Very few manage to capture the soul of the stories as well as make them into something new and exciting. With The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden has not only managed it but succeeded with flying colors.
The language and lyricism of the writing are captivating, pulling you further and further into the story like an enchantment. Rich descriptions of Vasilisa's world and the careful inclusion of details from Russian folklore create an atmosphere heavy with both magic and humanity, and it is easy to suspend one's disbelief and be swept up in the story. It's been a long time since I got so caught up in a book - so lost in its pages - that I read for hours without realizing it, but there was almost no other way to read this book. Every time I set down The Bear and the Nightingale it felt like pulling myself from a dream and I immediately wanted to dive back into the story.
This heady, atmospheric narration, combined with Arden's perfect plot pacing, has me convinced that she is one of the most masterful storytellers I've had the privilege of reading in a long time. In addition to being well-plotted and captivatingly rendered, The Bear and the Nightingale is populated skillfully portrayed characters, human in their faults, desires, and motivations, lending a lovely hint of realism to the fantastical story-line. Of these, the shining star of the novel is its heroine, Vasilisa. Spirited, courageous, and compassionate, Vasilisa is the type of heroine I dreamed of reading about as a little girl, but she is also flawed and fully realized.
Much of the story hinges on Vasya's independence and strong will, at odds with the time and society in which she lives. It is clear that Arden has devoted careful attention to maintaining this balance, allowing readers to feel Vasya's frustration at her curtailed freedom while understanding her actions as well as the actions of those around her. She is one of the best-written "strong female characters" I've yet come across, and I cannot wait to read more of her adventures.
The Bear and the Nightingale can be read as a standalone, if one so desires, but the sequel is set to be released next January. I, for one, am ravenous for more of this magical, winter-dark world and can't wait to sink my teeth into the next installment!
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.