An entrancing, bewildering debut. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is heavily-influenced by Russian fairytales and steeped in winter. Snow, ice and frost are the everyday reality for the Vladimirovich family in medieval northern Russia where winter lasts many months of the year. It is a land of legend, folklore and fairytales where the people pay homage to the gods of the forest.
This is the story of Vasya, a wild child who sees the gods of the forests and the spirits of the house. Then one day a priest arrives from the city to challenge the superstitions and traditions of the country folk. It is a story of winter/summer, girl/boy, countryside/city but most of all, old magic versus the church. Is Vasya a free spirit, or is she a witch? Is her behaviour refreshing and engaging, or wicked? She alone can talk to the horses which teach her to ride like a Steppe boy, exhilarating and dashing but inappropriate for a young girl.
The only other person who can see the demons is Anna, Vasya’s stepmother, but whereas Vasya understands the demons, Anna fears them. She begs the priest, Father Konstantin, for prayers to banish them. But Konstantin becomes distracted as God starts speaking to him directly. Various attempts are made to tame Vasya. Her father wonders if a man will ever want to marry a girl who spends her time in the woods rather than sewing and cooking, her stepmother plots to get rid of her, her brothers protect her. Then a winter arrives which threatens to be the worst of all, many will die, and Pyotr Vladimirovich’s family will never be the same again.
In this book you will scarcely know where the fairy tales end and real life begins, indeed the book begins with the telling of a fairy tale. Arden has packed her novel with sumptuous description, colourful characters and layers on layers of myth, so many names and stories that you will struggle to keep track of them. It is a moody read, atmospheric, with beautiful description. But it is not a quick read, so relax into it and immerse yourself in Vasya’s life. You will be drawn into this unfamiliar world so you feel the hardships of the family, their fears, their dreams and dilemmas.
The Bear and the Nightingale is not an easy read, but it is rewarding. The Russian diminutives added to my confusion in the first few chapters when so many characters are introduced. Also the line between fairy tale and the story of Pyotr Vladimirovich’s family is often blurred. But stick with it, this book rewards perseverance.
If you like this, try these other novels about unusual worlds:-
‘The Queen of the Tearling’ by Erika Johansen
‘The Seventh Miss Hatfield’ by Anna Caltabiano
‘The Magicians’ by Lev Grossman
‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ by Katherine Arden, #1 Winternight [UK: Del Rey] Buy now
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