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 (Goodreads, 2017).
I really enjoyed reading the first book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. Reading “The Bear and the Nightingale” made me feel nostalgic as the inspiration that Ms. Arden drew from the Russian fairytales of my childhood is unmistakeable. Reading about the rusalka and domovoi brought me back to those long ago days.
While reading this story it’s impossible not to love and root for the protagonist, Vasilisa. Vasilisa or Vasya lives up to the reputation of her numerous fairytale namesakes. She is both brave and beautiful. At the same time she is also a girl desperately trying to escape being caged. Russian women of her time (this story seems to be set in 14th century Russia based on the historical figures that are mentioned) had only two paths before them: a convent or marriage. Vasya seems to be made for neither and it’s heartbreaking to see attempts to force her into one of those paths. It’s almost astounding how Vasya manages to keep so much love in her heart despite the fear, hatred and violence that is directed towards her.
In addition to thinking that this story has a fantastic protagonist, I loved how the Katherine Arden’s writing style could evoke a fairytale atmosphere that is at times also quite menacing. I also enjoyed all the nods to traditional Russian culture that I had only previously experienced when watching Russian historical dramas.
“The Bear and the Nightingale” is the story of a heroine emerging to battle a great evil. At the end it almost felt like the story should come to a close so I’m very curious to see where Katherine Arden will take Vasya’s story next.
If you are a fan of fairytale inspired stories then I highly recommend this book. It was a 5 out of 5 for me.
Quotes that I Found Significant:
You wonder too much Vasilisa Petrovna. Better to stay quiet at home with your little sister.
All my life I have been told go and come. I am told how I will live. I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure. Or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent God. I will walk into the jaws of Hell itself if it were a path of my own choosing.