The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published by Del Rey
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, YA
For Fans of: Uprooted, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cruel Beauty
My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
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.
Many thanks to Netgalley and Del Rey for giving me a copy of this in exchange for an honest review.
What a book. The Bear and The Nightingale was evocative, lyrical, and wonderfully captivating. Right from the get-go, it’s filled with magic and atmosphere so intense and well-woven, you can almost touch it. And although it’s slow to build, it’s endlessly captivating from start to finish.
The story follows young Vasya, a wild, stubborn, fiery girl with the ability to see things that no one in her village – save for her extremely religious, wicked step-mother – can. Vasilisa is incredibly easy to love. She’s witty, she’s brave, and she’s filled with love and compassion for the people around her.
Everything starts to go to hell (heh) with the arrival of Anna, Vasya’s cruel stepmother, and Father Konstatine, an ambitious, slightly power-hungry priest with a mission to spread fear and Claude Frollo vibes. With the village caught in between old religions and new, Konstatine and Anna put the Fear of God (quite literally) into the hearts of the villagers, to the point where the guardians of the forest and the village grow impossibly weak and Vasya, with her wild ways and her Sight, is branded a witch.
The slow build-up did worry me a couple times, but it shouldn’t have. This book was stunning – nothing like I expected it to be, but wonderful nevertheless. Like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, it’s filled to the brim with magic; a fairy tale for adults. The characters were strong, even the ones who had short appearances, and the atmosphere in this thing was brilliant. It was a little more serious than Uprooted, and had barely any romance (but there was some. My shipper senses are tingling). I’m fairly sure that, at the end of the year, this will definitely have a place on my Best of 2017 list.
If you enjoy fairy tales, atmospheric fantasy, and meaty, well-written stories, then you have to read this. Don’t let the slow pace deter you – Katherine Arden is an author you need to keep your eye on. This was a wonderful read.
And I would very much like the sequel. As soon as possible.