Enchanted Russian Fairy Tale: A Review of The Bear and The Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)
Written by: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 312 (Hardback)
Series: Winternight Trilogy Book #1
Publisher: Del Rey

Why I Chose It: The title and cover of The Bear and the Nightingale did not immediately grab my attention. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I wasn’t browsing outside my comfort zone for books to review for Speculative Chic. When I realized that the book is set in medieval Russia and based on a folk tale, I knew I had to read it because I love historical fiction and re-imagined fairy tales.

The premise:

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.

Spoilers: A few mild spoilers ahead.


Discussion: The Bear and the Nightingale is a beautifully written book, and Arden does a brilliant job of transporting the reader to wintry wilds and wealthy cities of medieval Russia. The city of Moscow is described as “lusty and squalid, like a fair woman with feet caked in filth” (p. 33). Arden also introduced me to the folktales of Russian spirits, known as chyerti, who range from kindly protectors to mischievous pranksters to wicked monsters. My favorite spirit is the domovoi, a small brown creature who creeps out of the oven at night to wash the dishes and mend clothes. His payment is offerings of milk and bread, which left me wondering where I could find a domovoi, because I am not much for housework.

Only Vasya and her stepmother, Anna, can see the chyerti. Vasya respects the role that the spirits play in protecting the land and people, but Anna mistakes them for demons. The book’s central conflict is between Vasya, who believes in the old traditions, and the new priest, Father Konstantin, who dismisses the chyerti as heretical fairytales and frightens the villagers into abandoning their customs. Vasya tells the priest,

“I am only a country girl. I have never seen Tsargrad, or angels, or heard the voice of God. But I think you should be careful, Batyushka [Father], that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing. We have never needed saving before” (p. 108).

I would not call the book or Vasya anti-Christian. Vasya wants the villagers to be free to go to church but also leave offerings for the chyerti, as they have always done. It’s the priest’s arrogance that is the problem, not his religion. Anna plays the role of the evil stepmother, but she is terrified and manipulated by the priest.

Vasya is a feisty and feminist heroine who chafes at the restrictions that her culture places on women. She grows up running wild in the woods, learning from the spirits and talking to horses. As a child, she is like a wood sprite and as she grows older, she turns into a wild maiden. Her brother describes her as being “more like a warrior unblooded than a house-bred girl.” (p. 160). Father Konstantin is both drawn to and repulsed by her because she is not afraid. In a world that only allows women to be wives and mothers or nuns, Vasya desires to live a life of her own choosing. “I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.” (p. 279).

I also found it refreshing that The Bear and the Nightingale is a fairy tale that focuses on the love between family members instead of romantic love. Vasya loves her father, siblings, and the spirits she befriends. As a little girl, Vasya mourns when her older brother and sister leave for Moscow to become a priest and a wife. She loves her half-sister, Irina, even though Anna insists that Irina is more beautiful and feminine than Vasya. I also enjoyed the relationship between Vasya and Dunya, the nurse who is so old that she raised Vasya’s mother as well. Although Vasya’s family does not understand her, they love her and respect her power as a witch. Anna is cruel to Vasya, but it is clear that she was never loved. Anna wanted to be a nun, but her father forces her into marriage to strengthen his political alliances. Anna was raised to be fearful and to think that she is mad because she can see the spirits. The love of her family allows Vasya to be brave and to trust in the chyerti.

In conclusion: The Bear and the Nightingale is my favorite of the books that I have reviewed for Speculative Chic thus far. The conflict between Christianity and a more ancient, earth-based religion reminded me of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, but this book has its own unique charm. The writing is lovely, the heroine is memorable, and the story is intriguing. I came away feeling that I had learned new information about Russian culture and folklore. I did not even realize that this book is the first in a trilogy until I looked it up on Amazon, but I can’t wait to reconnect with these characters. The second book, The Girl in the Tower, will be released in January 2018, and I’m already looking forward to reading it.

 

2 Comments

  • Shara White September 21, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Ooooh, this sounds lovely. One of my favorite Russian-set stories is Kim Wilkins’ Veil of Gold. I read it forever ago, back when I had a book blog. The paperback cover is not every representative of the book, but the hardcover cover is gorgeous and what made me want to read it!

    Reply
    • Kelly McCarty September 27, 2017 at 1:07 am

      I’m curious to see what katherine Arden does with this because the storyline didn’t seem like a trilogy to me. I haven’t read Veil of Gold, but I will have to check it out.

      Reply

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