“Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”
Every now and then a book will work its way deep under my skin and continue to whisper to me long after I’ve finished it. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is such a book. It’s a quietly magical and deeply imaginative retelling of a Russian fairytale of demons, superstition, and deep, almost never-ending winter.
In the far north of Rus’ (medieval Russia) on the border of a deep forest, Vasya is a child on the verge of womanhood. From very young she has unselfconsciously defied the roles expected of her and the inevitable life predetermined by her family: a quiet life of marriage and children, of submitting to a husband not of her choosing. Vasya would rather run free in the forest and befriend the household demons everyone else is trying to forget. She thrills to hear her nurse tell stories of Morozko the frost demon, with his blue eyes and unpredictable nature. It is never known whether he will give extravagant gifts or leave wandering souls to freeze to death in the woods.
When Vasya’s father brings home a cold and devout stepmother in an attempt to tame Vasya into a respecatable woman, the household is no longer permitted to pay respects to their household spirits. But Vasya has seen something evil awaken in the woods and can sense that her beloved demons may have an important role in protecting her family and home. At great cost, she defies her loved ones so she can keep them safe.
A little disclaimer – I picked this book up knowing almost nothing about the Russian fairytale of Morozko, or Frost, but I have read a lot of Russian literature and have always been fascinated by the country’s history. This book captures so well the tension of a transitioning country – of leaving ancient gods behind to embrace modern religion. The book is sometimes brutal and terrifying – so convincing were the characters’ battles with madness and fear. But it was also achingly beautiful and left me wanting to learn more about the roots that watered this story.
Vasya was completely delightful to read about. She is brave and spunky and I absolutely loved her ‘burn the patriarchy’ attitude while still daring to love and protect those around her who try to subject her to their expectations. There is very little romance which was quite refreshing, yet there are some tantalizing hints at a future love interest (I won’t spoil it for you but all I can say is I am here and ready for this ship to sail).
The book builds a little slowly at first, setting down rich details that help create the vivid atmosphere of the story. Though slow it may be to start, I never found it dull. I savoured every detail, the masterful writing, the haunting atmosphere. Building tension crescendos to an ending that had me a quite breathless, mouth hanging open, needing so much more. A few events were left untied, yet hint at building out into the books to come.
I’m completely in awe that this was a debut novel by an author whose previous writing experience is not much spoken of. The raw talent poured into this novel is astounding. Arden’s prose is lush and lyrical, while reminiscent of classic literature. The whimsical synopsis suggests YA fantasy, yet the writing style is mature and timeless.
A haunting and vivid story of female empowerment and loyalty, The Bear and the Nightingale is one of my favourite reads in quite a long time and I’m eagerly waiting to get my hands on the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, releasing in December 2017.
My rating: 5\5 stars
Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey, an imprint of Penguin Random House
Recommended for: those who enjoy fantasy, fairytale retellings, history