Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale, #1
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fantasy, Fairytale Retelling
Publisher: Ebury Press
Release Date: January 10th, 2017
Length: 328 pages | 11 hours 49 minutes
Source: Gifted by my favorite fierce warrior queen, Alyssa of Books Take You Places
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.
This book is one of those lovely fantasy meets history meets magic type of novels. It puts me in mind of Juliet Marillier stories- sweeping, with a courageous and compassionate heroine, complicated mythical beings, and families that have…er..some issues.
The setting is definitely Russia (north of Moscow), roughly 14th century. It’s a retelling of Vasilisa the Beautiful, although with less Baba Yaga and spirits of hearth and wood instead of a creepy wooden doll. Arden has done an admirable job of taking a bizarre fairytale and turning it into something lyrical and lovely. Vasya’s strength lies in her self-assuredness, her wildness (her belief in the natural world and its magic), and her loyalty. She performs heroic deeds and perseveres in the face of adversity- but all of that is communicated as if the story were being told over a fire by a master storyteller.
From the first page, this novel drew me in and enchanted me. And can we talk about the velvety cover for a moment? Lovely.
I want to see more or Morozka (of course- I need some god/mortal romance, apparently), and more of what Vasya will do next. I fully intend to continue the series, once book 2 is published. The title is a bit awkward, given it touches on the primary antagonist and a side character that is introduce in the final handful of chapters- unless it’s an allusion to something that I’m not understanding? Anyway, other titles that would’ve worked: “Vasilisa Smashes the 14th Century Patriarchy”, “You Say Witch, I Say Savior”, “Vasilisa and the Hot Winter God”, etc.
I recommend this for fans of good fairytale retellings, lyrical (but not florid) prose, historic fantasy, and Russian folklore.