Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.
A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.
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.
The writing is lush and glorious. The story is hypnotic. The characters are complex and compelling, from the young heroine to the (evil or misguided?) “holy man” and demons. The author flawlessly blends the harsh reality of life in 14th Century Russia with folklore and fantasy. There’s even a wicked stepmother, but she’s a woman with internal demons of her own, unlike Vasya, the young, free-spirited heroine. Vasya, like her new stepmother, sees demons and spirits, but Vasya seeks to know them, to understand them, not deny them. Some of them, in turn, help her, and Vasya will need help. She must fight for her freedom and her life – her stepmother and the villagers believe she is a witch – while she alone sees the evil encroaching closer and closer to the heart of the village. It is as if an epic battle between good and evil will take place in their small village in the very cold, very far north. This young, small heroine is to others just a girl who, like all girls, must be married off or sent to a convent, giving her a choice of one cage or another, while she knows she must stay – for now -- and protect her family as best she can.
This is a wonderful book, hard to put down. The pages almost turn themselves. The descriptions of nature, especially, are so sumptuous, I wish I could quote some here. Better to read the book and find them in context.
Honest to God, it was like reading LOTR all over again. I am in frenzy about this lovely read. I have always been fascinated with Russia's folklore and nature and this novel brought so much more to the table than I expected. It will be loved both be adults and children. 
The Bear and the Nightingale has been suggested to fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and Deathless by Catherynne Valente. I was happily smitten by the book and would recommend it to both a Young Adult and Adult reading audience. If you’re fond of retellings and folklore mixed with historical fiction, you might enjoy this book as much as I did.