The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
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 am a big fan of the Russian classics. I’ve read a good amount of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chesnokov. I even took a Russian literature class in college focused exclusively on Chesnokov. So in my opinion, The Bear and the Nightingale is everything you love (or maybe love to hate?) about the Russian classics, reimagined for the modern reader.
The Bear and the Nightingale is an incredibly atmospheric novel. It puts you deep into the snows of rural Russia, into a world where Christianity is warring with the old gods and old traditions. Where patriarchy is alive and well and women have little choices beyond marriage or taking the veil. In the midst of this is Vasilisa – Vasya. A strong-willed teenage girl with witchy magic who’ll do whatever it takes to save the ones she loves.
As I mentioned, this novel is incredibly atmospheric and feels like an old Russian novel reincarnated. That means the story at times is languid and utterly unhurried. The names are very Russian and difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with patronymics and the many, many nicknames each person accrues over a lifetime. But the writing is stunningly beautiful, the plot concept inventive, the setting immersive, and Vasya absolutely the kind of heroine you can root for. Also, can we talk about the gorgeous cover art?!
The first of three books, I have the sense that The Bear and the Nightingale may serve as a lengthy prologue for the story Arden is weaving. At the end of this first book, most plot points are not so much resolved as they are cracked open. A door to the real story Arden wishes to tell. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the Winternighttrilogy and seeing if my prediction is correct!
Have you read the Russian classics? Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? Let me know what you think below!