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.
4 of 5 Stars
This story started out incredibly slowly, so much so I was having trouble getting interested. I admit there were a few times I almost gave up but something kept me going. I became more and more curious about the magical elements as they started to appear. Once the pace picked up I grew to really appreciate the back story which gave a solid foundation for the rest of the book.
The characters in this story truly come to life in a number of ways. First, the strange (to me) and foreign names felt genuine, it connected with the story rather than being a cliche additional ‘fantasy’ element. There are characters from all different viewpoints and it was incredible getting to see the story through many sets of eyes. The rotating perspective helped to provide not only more information and extra parts to the ongoing drama but it helped me to understand the motivation of a character even more. This especially helped with Anna whose behavior and actions I wouldn’t have understood as well otherwise. I completely fell in love with Vasilisa as a strong and independent character placed in a time period when neither of those traits were celebrated in girls or women. At the end of the book I truly felt like I’d gone on a journey with her.
While the characters are wonderful, the world building is even better. I could truly imagine this small village along with all the magical household guests. Books that take me on an adventure are some of my favorites and this fits perfectly. The twists and turns toward the end of the book make all of the slower parts at the beginning well worth it. I admit I was a little skeptical about this being a ‘Russian fairytale’ but I do believe it earned that tag. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy, especially those who have a special appreciation for stories by the Grim brothers.
A big thank you to Ballantine Books and Netgalley for providing me with a free galley of this book in exchange for my honest review.