Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: retelling, historical fiction
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
Published: January 10 2017
Source: publishers via NetGalley
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.
Rich in atmosphere, mixing both the fantastical and the historical elements of old Russia, Katherine Arden's The Bear and the Nightingale makes for a strong and memorable debut novel. As the first in a series, the narrative spends quality amounts of time crafting this book's main character of Vasilisa, and also building the recognizable but magical world she inhabits with her large and mixed family. Drawing both on real world history and the beloved folklore of Vasilisa's home country, The Bear and the Nightingale is a well-crafted and enchanting mix of genres.
The fantastical elements of Vasya's life in the wilderness -- the rusalkas, domovoi, evil spirits and much more -- are balanced by the always harsh and realistic life eked out of Russia's unforgiving climate. Her family has known struggle and strife all her life but Vasya remains undaunted in her chosen role and place; a wild, free, uncompromising, and untameable girl. Her chief antagonist is the eponymous Bear of the title, but her secondary opponent arrives in the all-too-familiar form of religion, and religious, men. Vasya's struggle to save her family and home is complicated by the priest Konstantin's need to humble the proud young woman. It's a familiar story but Vasya fights -- for herself, for her home, and for so much more.
The magical and the mundane aspects of The Bear and the Nightingale come together neatly under Arden's adept plotting and turns of phrase -- and at just the right time before the closing denouement. Her clever writing, strong and defined characters, and the enveloping atmosphere coalesce into a finely-tuned historical fantasy that won't quickly be forgotten. Only a few pacing and clarity issues kept it from a five-star read. This story is one that is rich and detailed; the characters, from its heroines to the human villains, are vibrant and dimensional people. It's remarkably easy to sink into (and enjoy) the story that Katherine Arden is unwinding with her series-opener.