“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
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.
What a lovely book!
The Bear and the Nightingale reads like an extended riff on Russian fairy tales. While the main character Vasya (Vasilisa) is rooted in real life, with a family, a home, and the realities of harsh Russian winters, her life is filled with hints of magic. Set in the medieval Russian era, the book shows the harmony that exists between the people and the traditional spirits, even as their outward lives are governed by the Church. The women of the house leave offererings for the domovoi and other guardian spirits, but only Vasya is gifted with the ability to see and converse with them. When a new, ambitious priest arrives and forces the people to stop their offererings to the spirits, things go from bad to worse.
The writing in The Bear and the Nightingale is pitch-perfect, with a rhythm that evokes fairy tales and magical beings. It feels throughout that we’re listening to a folktale, and so the mood is sustained from moment to moment, even in the more mundane scenes of household chores or treks through the snow.
Vasya is a wonderful character, unwilling to accept the only two paths — marriage or convent — available to a young woman at that time. Through her independence and strong will, Vasya forges a new future for herself, even at the risk of gossip, ostracism, and physical danger.
It took me a little while to find the thread of the main plot, as the opening chapters feel a little scattered and disconnected. Once we meet Vasya, the story really comes together and develops more momentum. All in all, a very satisfying and enjoyable read.
Note: I didn’t discover until I’d finished the book that this is the first in a projected trilogy. The Bear and the Nightingale reads as a stand-alone, and felt quite complete at the end. Still, I’ll look forward to revisiting these characters and this world.
Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fiction – fairy tales
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley