I will preemptively add, this book was one I had to read for class in my MFA. However, it doesn’t change what I feel in regards to the book, just that I may not have discovered this book otherwise.
The Bear and the Nightingale
By Katherine Arden
Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.
But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
This was honestly a slower start for a fantasy book compared to what I am used to. However, once the fantastical begins to take place we are sped through like a rocketship. This speed almost completely negates my feelings for the beginning because of it.
One of my favorite things about the story is that it introduces us to a Slavic fairy tale at the very beginning. Like many fairy tales, we’re left with this story in mind as we continue throughout the story. There are a few similarities such as the step-mother who doesn’t like the daughter and Morozko existing. However much of it has also changed and gives a breath of fresh air for the reader.
One of my favorite parts about the book isn’t necesarily the actual text, but the narrator for the audiobook. She takes the deep mythology of Slavic cultures and the names of people and brings them to life. Even when I was home and didn’t need to use the audiobook format I found myself reading along while the narrator read to me.
One thing you do have to keep in mind with this book because it’s not a western European fairy tale, there are a few differences compared to what we know of fairy tales. There is no knight in shining armor, no rule of three, not even a princess. Ok, there is a princess but she is a very tertiary character that it’s not as relevant to the story.
If I had picked this book up and was trying to read it for pleasure, it is possible that I wouldn’t have completed the book. But out of the requirement for my class I did and I am glad I had to.
For those thinking about picking up this book, keep that downside in mind. It is a slow burn book, but a beautiful and rich filled slow burn.