I’ve seen The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden on bookshelves and stores for a while now, and I’d already added it to my must-read list when I realized it would fit in perfectly with my month of Russia. Needless to say, I wasted no time in devouring a book that I’ve been wanting to read. It wasn’t until I was nearly finished that I found out the book’s sequel conveniently comes out this December. Lucky me. And you.
A Note on History:
The story doesn’t delve into it overmuch, but it takes place in that time of Russia’s history when the Golden Horde—the Mongols—ruled Russia (from about the 1200s-1300s). Ivan II, Ivan Ivanovich the Fair, was the Grand Prince of Muscovy (Moscow) at the time.
Marina dies in childbirth so that Vasilisa, her daughter, may live. The girl grows up seeing those things that others cannot: hearth and earth spirits, the remnants of Rus’ folk tales.
In order to provide his daughter with a mother, Pyotr Vladimirovich—a Russian lord and master of the village Lesnaya Zemlya—marries again. His first wife, Marina, was Ivan Ivanovich’s sister. His second is Ivan’s daughter. His new wife, Anna, also sees the unseen, but unlike Vasilisa, she’s frightened, considering the hearth spirits that protect homes evil instead of good.
Between Anna and Lesnaya’s new Christian priest, Konstantin, the villagers start to fear the Christian God and turn from the hearth spirits that have been part of their lives for centuries. Without belief, the hearth spirits cannot thrive, and homes are left unprotected. This is a problem because an evil in the forest has started to awaken, and the village is on the front lines of the new battle. Vasilisa must team up with the God of Winter to defeat the evil and save her people.
The Bear and the Nightingale is one of those snow-tipped fairy tales that feature in your winter dreams. It effortlessly combines magic with history in the northern reaches of Russia where the winters are long, the forests are primeval, and life is enchanted. The story caught me up in moments, whisking me away on Morozko’s icy steed.
Vasilisa, affectionately referred to as Vasya, is our heroine. Like her grandmother, she can see and talk to the hearth spirits. It’s her strength of character, her determination to protect both the fading hearth spirits and her people, that brings good through in the end. She’s also a wild child, more at home in the forest than in the village. This is problematic because a girl of her station (high) has only two options: marriage or a convent. She’s not made for either one.
Pyotr Vladimirovich is a noble and Vasilisa’s father. He loves his daughter, but he loves and misses his dead wife as well, and these two emotions tear at him because one willingly died for the other to be born. It’s his love and sacrifice that also helps to win the day.
Alyosha is Vasya’s next sibling in age. He was just a few years old when she was born, and the two play together. As they get older, he believes in her insistence in the existence of hearth spirits and does all he can to protect her from their stepmother’s, Anna’s, hatred and wrath.
Morozko—also known as Karachun, Death, the God of Winter, and the frost demon—watches Vasya and waits. He recognizes her special powers and strengths, knowing that she will help save them from the awakening evil of his twin brother…
The Bear. He feeds on man’s fear, chaos, and war. Death bound him, but with the weakening of man’s believe in Morozko and the hearth spirits, the binding loses strength, and the Bear awakens.
Konstatin is the priest that comes to the village. He’s tormented by his immoral lust of Vasya and allows evil into his heart and the village.
Anna, also tormented by her hatred of the hearth spirits and the girl who talks to them, encourages Konstatin in spreading the fear of God throughout the village, a fear that only weakens the good spirits and encourages the evil.
The book begins with Marina finding out she is pregnant, skips forward to her death and Vasya’s birth, and then skips forward once again to Vasya at the age of 8 and her father’s remarriage. The next part starts with Vasya several years older as a teenager and marriageable age (this age is younger than what we think is right nowadays). The lapse of time, about a 15 year period in all, is necessary to see the effects of Anna and Konstatin on the village and grow Vasya into a woman of strength and character. It flows very well without the awkwardness that leaps in years often causes.
The writing is…beautiful. Glorious. So poetic and entrancing that I finished the book before I realized it was 3 a.m. and an early morning waited.
“His voice was like snow at midnight.”
“You are. And because you are, you can walk where you will, into peace, oblivion, or pits of fire, but you will always choose.”
“We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives.”
This story is what my heart dreams of when snow blankets the ground. It’s full of magic and wonder and some of the most basic of life’s lessons: sacrifice, love, and free will.