Originally published: January 2017
Author: Katherine Arden
Published by: Del Ray
Genre: Historical fantasy
Page count: 430
Reading dates: 25-31 July 2018
Star Rating: 4/5
The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, a series of adult historical fantasy novels. The story is set in a medieval Russian village, where Vasya is the youngest of the Vladimirovich children.
Vasya and her siblings live with their widowed father, Pyotr who is the Boyar of the village and their nurse Dunya – the landscape is bleak. Winters last most of the year in the Russian wilderness and are a struggle with the cold and lack of food but the family are close. Vasya runs wild through the forest around them and causes her father to worry. He decides she needs a mother so goes to Moscow to find a new wife.
Vasya’s new stepmother Anna sees spirits and has immersed herself in religion to try and cleanse herself of her visions. On settling in her new home, she forbids her family from honouring their household guardians, the Domovoi is the house guardian (and lives in the oven) and the Vazila is the guardian of the stables and the horses. Although the villagers can’t see the spirits, they have always paid tribute to them by leaving them scraps of food. Only Anna and Vasya (who has always hidden her gifts) can actually see them. While Anna is scared and thinks she is going mad, Vasya, talks to them and is careful to make sure they are looked after.
As the village becomes more religious, due to the arrival of a new priest they turn their backs on the guardians that live among them and the defences of the village weaken, and a frost demon, Medved threatens their survival.
In Russian folklore, Morozko is known as Father Frost and is seen as both as being good and evil. To get over the contradiction of this, the author gives Morozko a brother, Medved, the great Russian bear. In this retelling, Morozko is generally benevolent, while Medved is a form of death and thrives on fear and disorder. Morozko has done his best to keep Medved bound but as the village becomes more fearful, Medved gets stronger.
Fantasy is not a genre I am particularly fond of, but this was totally immersive from the word go. There are a lot of names to get your head around (a lot of the characters also seem to have more than one name – their own and a shortened version to add to potential confusion) and I don’t know how Arden did it, but I was able to follow the story and the characters with ease. I really enjoyed this story – it is intelligently written in a beautiful lyrical prose and is very atmospheric. Vasya is a great heroine – plucky, brave and resourceful (and apparently not beautiful, being compared to a frog!). I’ve only marked it down a star because I found it dragged a little in the middle but overall a great read, especially for winter!
Thank you to Anne Cater and Ebury Publishing for sending me both the first and second books in the trilogy. I’ll be reviewing The Girl in the Tower later this month.
The Russian legend of Morozko:
Once there was a woman who had both a daughter of her own, whom she loved, and a step-daughter, whom she hated. One day, the woman ordered her husband to take her stepdaughter out into the winter fields and leave her there to die, and he obeys. Morozko finds her there; she is polite and kind to him, so he gives her a chest full of beautiful things and fine garments. After a while, her stepmother sends her father to bring back the girl’s body to be buried, which he also obeys. After a while, the family dog says that the girl is coming back, and that she is beautiful and happy.
When the stepmother sees what her stepdaughter has brought back, she orders her husband to take her own daughter out into the fields. Unlike before, this child is rude to Morozko, and he freezes her to death. When her husband goes out to bring her back, the family dog says the child will be buried. When the father brings back the body, the old woman weeps.
About the author:
Born in Texas, Katherine studied French and Russian at Middlebury College. She has lived abroad in France and in Moscow, among other places. She has also lived in Hawaii, where she wrote much of The Bear and the Nightingale. She currently lives in Vermont.