on January 10th 2017
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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 bought The Bear and the Nightingale on a whim after seeing it on sale via Bookbub. I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. In all honesty, I adored this book. The prose was absolutely beautiful, the story completely unique and aptly showing the darker side of fairy tales, and the heroine was strong and utterly herself. As soon as I finished this book, I was dying to read the next one that wasn’t even released yet.
The prose in this book was utterly wonderful and set a magical, wild atmosphere that pervaded the entire book and managed to make main character, Vasilisa “Vasya” Petranova’s ability to see and communicate with the chyerti, or the creatures of Russian fairy tales, even more special and worthy of protecting. I wished that I could write even a bit like author Katharine Arden, who changed the simplest of sentences into the stuff of song and poetry. With words like these, “Fall came at last to lay cool fingers on the summer-dry grass; the light went from gold to gray and the clouds grew damp and soft,” the magic of her tale was simply irresistible. Arden’s characters and creatures leapt off the pages and sprang into life.
What’s more, was that there were no blatant young adult tropes in this book—everything was written with subtlety. I was thrilled that there were no obvious love triangles, with the heroine inevitably struggling to choose between two men. Instead of the typical love triangle that seems to be almost a requirement in young adult books these days, there was a mysterious Frost Demon with a beautiful white mare, with an unknown interest in the heroine that could save them all from the ancient evil threatening her people. The priest, Konstantin, who unknowingly became a tool for evil, showed an interest in Vasya, but she never obliged him, preferring the company of horses and chyerti to men, even when she was betrothed. Vasya herself recognized the obvious fate of the women of her time—to marry a man not of her own choosing or to enter a convent—and brazenly defied it.
“All my life…I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and 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 to me.”
The forest itself, did often take lives. Under the author’s skilled hands, the setting, in medieval Russia—before Russia was even actually Russia, and was in fact, Rus—felt primal, watchful dangerous, and ultimately, like a character of its own. When winter came, the characters grew thin, afraid, and were confined mostly to their wooden homes with only their ovens to keep them warm, as the forest and its creatures loomed around them. And when summer came, Vasya again ventured into her precious stables and the forest.
As a horse lover, I adored Vasya’s bonding with the chyerti of horses, the vazila, who taught her to care for and speak to the horses. When the horses together decided to teach friendless Vasya to ride, I was even more thrilled. When the men of her village were dismayed to see Vasya’s ability to ride better than even their best rider, I felt victorious.View Spoiler » It was only fitting that Vasya rode her own stallion, Solovey, into battle against the evil Bear, who threatened the very lives of the villagers. « Hide Spoiler
But you don’t have to be a horse-lover to connect with Vasya. Though the book easily set Vasya apart from her family and people, it still managed to make me feel like a kindred spirit with her from the very beginning.
“It struck [him] how strange Vasya looked among the big, coarse men, with her long bones and her slenderness, her great eyes set so wide apart….Well, there she was, a falcon among cows.”
Seeking to quash the spirit of the falcon, was evil stepmother, Anna Ivanovna. But unlike most fairy tales where the stepmother is only purely evil, she was written in a way that separated her from the rest of the trite hoard. Ana was sympathetic in her fanaticism and fear and served as the perfect foil to brave Vasya. The stepmother simply did not have her stepdaughter’s attractive strength, magnetism, and tenacity, despite all of her brutal attempts to rob Vasya of it. And when Ana gets her just desserts, it is a way that pays respect to the darker tones of the novel, and the more gruesome side of fairy tales.
This book was brilliant on so many different levels and obviously very well researched. I loved learning about the fairy tales of Rus and their darker, non-Disney, sides. Even more, I enjoyed Vasya breaking away from tradition and coming into her own in a way that was true to her wild self. This was not your average Cinderella story, with the downtrodden girl marrying a prince to escape her terrible life, but was instead was a victory for girls everywhere, with the heroine choosing her own life—tradition be damned—and confidently riding off into the sunset on her own. After I finished the book, I knew there was no way that I would be able to resist buying the next book in the series when it was released.