Book review - The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden
Being the first entry in a series, THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE needed to deliver on a number of fronts. The world of Russian folklore is relatively new territory to this reviewer but there are commonalities to the stories of other cultures i.e. that of Jack Frost, winter kings, and of domestic spirits and the sacrifices that are required to appease them. It also needed to engage and we can tick that box as TBATN pulls gently but insistently at your attention throughout with fully fleshed characters who all have their own paths to tread, descriptions of a beautiful and icy landscape and the lure of a enigmatic saviour not from the realm of man. Vasya (as Vasilisa is mostly called in this novel) is trapped by the conventions and misapprehensions of her gender in a more restrictive time. She is both incredibly naive and intuitively brave at the same time and you will need to accept her character as one that tries to do the best she can in oppressive circumstances. Vasya can be sometimes irritating but this is her story, her trials, and her onward journey.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE trips between two sensibilities; those of mature adult fantasy readers who are prepared to encounter darker themes and those of young adults or children who might not necessarily want to. The intended market is never quite clear in this read though so the expectations of this adult reader were not quite met. This is not necessarily a negative thought as THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is delightful regardless; it is more that the anticipated adult entanglements and violent encounters are only thinly referenced or left out altogether.
The continuum of this book has some well prepared scope; book three of the series is now being written. THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is a solid first entry and beautifully crafted piece of fantasy that will keep you happily immersed in a wintry world of folklore that is quite familiar and yet fresh once again in the hands of an author who obviously loves her creations, and has great respect for their land of origin.
Winter in a remote Russian village must be diligently prepared for and stoically endured. The gods of home and hearth exist alongside that of the Christian deity but so it is that a wise person in these times may only be perceived to serve the singular. The family of Pyotr Vladimirovich live at quite a distance from Moscow but they are not immune to its influences and politics. Pyotr raises his sons and daughters with the help of a wise nurse and domestic staff but becomes aware as his children grow older and more independent that a new wife would be a wise addition to the household.
Pyotr's beloved first wife was only ever on loan; an ethereal creature that never thrived in the harsh conditions and who passed after birthing their daughter Vasilisa. So to Moscow Pyotr must go, to secure a pious new wife and to strengthen his ties to the royal family. There a mysterious stranger encounters Pyotr with a special request that he hold in trust a protective jewel for Vasilisa until she is of age. As the years go on, Pyotr's hold on the wilful Vasilisa becomes more difficult to maintain and there is talk amongst the villagers that Vasilisa and her visions are something to be feared. The winters are becoming harsher, and they are looking for someone to blame.