Katherine Arden: The Bear and the Nightingale

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.

I’ve really been looking forward to reading this one–there’s nothing like a good fairy tale to raise the spirits. I’ve been trying to get ahold of it forever, it seems, and it finally came available at the library. I’ve heard so many amazing things about The Bear and the Nightingale.

The setting is quite gorgeous–medieval Russia, way up in the north where it’s cold and isolated. There’s all kinds of magical creatures–called demons, by the Christ-following family members, but really more like fae and spirits. Arden has packed her book full of old Russian-lore. Some I had heard of before, like the Rusalka, but most were new and fascinating. The head “demon” is kind of a Jack Frost type soul, crossed with Death.

Aside from the lore, though, I had a hard time connecting to the story as much as I thought I would. There were many characters that came and went for no purpose:  Is Sasha’s storyline even necessary? Olga could be removed altogether and we’d never know she existed. I found the book to drag on a lot longer than necessary, and I was very ready for the ending when it came.

I do have the second installment that I was supposed to read at the beginning of December before publication, but because I had to wait so long to get this one, I’m a bit behind schedule. It’s a sequel, but I’m not entirely sure how this could continue on. Maybe it’ll be a different legend? Stay tuned.


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