book review: the bear and the nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Del Rey, 323 pp.
Published January 10, 2017

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.

Would that we all had the time to read every new book the moment it comes out, with nothing conspiring to keep our to-read shelves piled high. Unfortunately a little thing called 'life' demands most of our attention and that is the only (poor) excuse I have for arriving so late to this beautiful novel. The Bear and the Nightingale transported me: to medieval Russia in the depths of winter; to a childhood when our abilities were still undefined and limitless; to a world where a strong, scared girl can still melt a frost king's heart.

The story moves at a leisurely pace; our heroine, Vasya, isn't even born yet when the book begins. A delay in the action better serves to introduce unfamiliar readers with the culture and customs of medieval Russia. (Arden also includes an extensive glossary at the end of the book that defines and further explains many of the words and concepts at play throughout the story.) It's difficult to imagine that, according to the author, this is one of the least well-documented eras in the country's history. So little world-building takes place because from the first page Vasya's home and family leap forward fully formed. Rich prose perfectly suits the fantasy setting, evoking a rustic country estate and a magical house built of firs and snow and shadows with equal splendor.

A third person omniscient narrator ensures that nearly every player, great and small, contributes to the story. There is no set structure for how perspectives alternate, though divisions within each chapter keep them separate. Instead we drift among them as the action dictates, staying most frequently with Vasya once she's grown.

And what a protagonist to follow! In the midst of winter Vasya becomes the human embodiment of an ember, a spark seeking out any dry kindling and setting it ablaze. Her headstrong and oftentimes rebellious attitude brings with it real consequences. Both the regimented upper class and the superstitious peasants regard her differences as detractors from an ideal; even Vasya's beloved siblings struggle to summon a patient tolerance for her wild ways. By turns innocent and insightful, brave and blundering, confident and confined, she matures before our eyes. Her ability to see beyond the mundane—both literally and figuratively—inspires the smallest twinge of jealousy for the lost magic of childhood. And as Vasya battles for the safety of her friends and family, the reader will feel inspired to take up arms as well.

Morozko, the brooding frost king, is the perfect complement to her fire. Ever taut, the tension between them stems first from an imbalance between mortal girl and immortal being; later, it draws on an equality of spirit that hangs heavy and unacknowledged between them. Hints of romance do peek through, threatening a growing heat and greater heartbreak in the books to come. Even in its early stages, theirs has quickly become a new favorite literary relationship for me to root for.

Vasya's mortal antagonist, the dogmatic priest Konstantin, reminds strongly of Claude Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame with his warring lusts for God, power, and carnal love. His mythical counterpart, first seen as a one-eyed man deep in the forest, looms over misfortunes large and small. Moments of genuine horror—like the appearance of upyr, or vampires—assure that his reach is absolute, with the consequences of a possible victory rippling far beyond Vasya and her rural home.

Like any great introduction to a new series, The Bear and the Nightingale ends with its most immediate threats neutralized and the promise of greater challenges looming ahead. In this stunning debut, Arden has written an ode not just to a little-documented period of Russian history, but also to the very spirit of great fairy tales everywhere. Like Naomi Novik and Catherynne Valente before her, she did more than entertain me: she made me believe again. While I may not peep into ovens and bathrooms looking for domovoi and banniks, the world feels a little more magical for having Vasya and her companions in it.


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