The Bear and the Nightingale: A feast of Russian folklore-inspired fantasy

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden fantasy book reviewsThe Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

In the northern lands of medieval Rus’, a daughter is born to Pyotr Vladimirovich, a boyar, lord over many lands, and his wife Marina, who dies in childbirth. But Marina, daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow and a mysterious, swan-like beggar girl, has bequeathed her daughter Vasilisa a mystical heritage. Vasilisa, or Vasya, grows up to be a spirited and rather rebellious young girl who, like an untamed colt, freely roams the fields and forest, and is able to see and communicate with the domovoi (a guardian of the home), rusalka (a dangerous water nymph), and other natural spirits of the home and land. Her beloved nurse Dunya tells Vasya and her siblings stories of Ivan and the Gray Wolf, the Firebird, and the frost-king, Morozko.

But Vasya’s carefree life ends when her father finally decides to remarry. He brings home a new wife from Moscow, Anna, the daughter of the prince of Moscow, who is also able to see the spirits of the land, but considers them devils and demons, clinging to her cross and her belief in the church. Pyotr also brings home a mysterious gift for Vasya, a necklace with a brilliant silver-blue jewel, given to him by Morozko, whom he met in Moscow. But Pyotr and the old nurse Dunya hold the necklace back from Vasya, fearing to give it to her.

Vasya’s life with Anna as her stepmother becomes strained: the strictly devout Anna is always at odds with the child of nature, who loves the magical creatures that terrify Anna. Life becomes even more difficult when a new priest arrives from Moscow, Father Konstantin, a handsome and charismatic man who preaches fiery sermons against the spirits of the land. As the people cease honoring (and leaving food for) these spirits, they weaken … but evil is waiting to step in as their protective influence wanes. Vasya finds herself at odds with her family and the villagers as she strives to protect them against unimaginable dangers that they thought existed only in fairy tales.

The Bear and the Nightingale weaves a richly colored tapestry, combining elements from various Russian fairy tales, a realistic description of life in medieval times, when Russia was not yet a unified country, and an independent and appealing heroine. The frost-king Morozko and his destructive brother, the Bear, play the primary fairy tale roles, but there are additional and sometimes delightfully unexpected Russian folklore elements like the stepmother sending her stepdaughter into the forest to find snowdrops in midwinter (from the story “Twelve Months”), Morozko (also known as Father Frost) sending lost girls home with a dowry of gold and jewels, the Sea-King’s daughter, and Vasilisa the Beautiful. (I’m sure I missed a few more!)

The atmosphere is well-developed, immersing you in life in medieval Rus’, a place where fairy tales may be true … which is not necessarily a comfortable thing. Enchantments can be good or evil, and the rusalka, vazila (a spirit that guards the stable and livestock) and other nature spirits are dangerous as well as helpful. Arden deftly illustrates their nature, so alien to humankind, as well as the need for mutual understanding and cooperative co-existence, which breaks down so badly in this tale.

A major theme ― in fact, it propels the entire plot ― is the conflict between old beliefs, respecting and caring for the nature spirits, and the newer religion, Christianity, which is generally, and emphatically, in the wrong in this book. Father Konstantin and Anna, and the rest of the villagers that flock to follow the priest, are poor examples of religious believers. At times it seems that the novel sets up believers as being generally weak and dangerously misguided, though those characters are offset, to some extent at least, by Vasya’s brother Sasha, who has a sincere heart and desire for a religious vocation, and the monk he follows, Sergei Radonezhsky. In any case, The Bear and the Nightingale certainly effectively illustrates the power of fear, as well as the danger of using that fear, rather than love, to prompt religious devotion.

Another prominent theme is Vasya’s desire to live life freely, on her own terms, in a time when an arranged marriage or life in a convent were generally the only options for a properly raised female. Though it’s a modern theme, Arden integrates it well into the overall plot, and Vasya doesn’t come off as unduly anachronistic … though I did get a little tired of seeing her compared to an unbroken filly.

The cruelty of winter and the terrors of the deep, untamed forest, where wolves ― and worse things ― rove, are tangible. At the same time, The Bear and the Nightingale also incorporates references to actual historic figures, like Genghis Khan (at this time the Rus’ people were required to pay tributes to the conquering Horde), Sergei Radonezhsky, and princes of Moscow from the fourteenth century, although they are fictionalized.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a well-written and thoroughly thought-out fantasy, suspenseful and delightful. While it reads well as a stand-alone novel, Arden has indicated that two sequels are in process. I can’t wait to be transported to medieval Russia again!

~Tadiana Jones


The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden fantasy book reviewsI thought The Bear and the Nightingale was wonderful. Arden’s choice to combine elements from some of Russia’s most famous folktales, Morozko and Vasilisa the Beautiful, and fold them into a tale of her own making was a potentially risky decision, but she pulls it off beautifully. The traditional elements of the tales inform Arden’s original story, that of the witch-descended girl Vasilisa and her gradual discovery and implementation of her fantastical gifts, without sidelining it or taking anything away. Everything is so well-detailed, from the waves of a rusalka’s flowing hair to the opulence of the kremlin in Moscow. I have very high hopes for Arden’s future works, particularly as she continues Vasya’s story, and will keep an eagle eye out for the next book!

~Jana Nyman

Published January 10, 2017. A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice. 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.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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2 comments

  1. Looking forward to this one

  2. It sounds wonderful. I like the Vasilia the Beautiful stories a lot. I sounds like Arden wove her elements together very well.

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