The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
#1 in the Winternight Trilogy
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.
The Bear and the Nightingale follows Vasilisa a young girl living in on the brink of the wilderness in a fantasy version of Medieval Russia. She lives in a town that believes in both the christian church and the stories of old. After her mother passes away Vasilisa’s father heads to Moscow and brings home a new wife.
Vasilisa soon discovers what happens when a truly devout woman decides that within the town household spirits will no longer be honoured and is backed by the new town priest. From the moment they arrive things begin to go downhill, from freezing winters to failing crops Vasilisa becomes highly worried about her family’s ability to survive the harsh winters.
So, this book has A Lot going on. Vasilisa is a fantastic main character. She is wild and brave and not afraid to stand up to the norms of medieval Russia where she is oppressed and expected to be obedient. I really liked how she was wild at heart and cared deeply for the household spirits, even when it caused her to be labeled as a witch.
The story as a whole was interesting and definitely something I hadn’t read before. Russian myth is not something I am familiar with however it is definitely mythology I would be interested in finding out more about. The story definitely had some magic woven into the hardships of winter described.
Katherine Adren’s writing lends itself to the historical fiction fantasy genre. There were some beautiful description of the settings. Even being in the midst of summer here in Australia it was like I could feel the bitter cold Russian Winter being described. I find that particularly important to a book with such depth and detail as this. Without a greatly detailed and engaging setting I can end up feeling like the story is to dense and I am unable to get past the denseness to the beauty behind it.
As I listened to the story on Audiobook I found it a bit hard to keep track of all the names they were definitely not super complicated but I did find that I muddled them up quite a lot. I don’t know if that is necessarily a critique of the book or just my listening skills.
There were a few characters that I really disliked throughout the story. Vasalia’s stepmother Ana was one of them. I found her totally irrational and completely unfair to Vasalisa to the point where she was clearly treating her poorly.
I also absolutely despise and I mean despise Constantine the priest who comes to the village. It has absolutely nothing to do with him being the religious figurehead and everything to do with him being the worst person ever. The fact that he blatantly blames a child for his actions and thoughts is something that bothers me to no end. He is also quick to sacrifice anyone but himself -even his more devout follower – when given the option to protect himself by doing so. I would get so outraged while I was reading. Especially when he wouldn’t let Vasilisa run away and the only answer for him was for her to go to a convent, even though running away would culminate in the same result.
The beginning of the story is slow. It was a bit difficult to get into. There are so many events that happen in quick succession that are necessary for the story but also happen way too fast. I also found some moments unnecessary. While in Moscow one of Vasilisa’s brothers decides to become a monk. I don’t know if I missed something or if this will become important to the next two books but for ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ there seemed to be no reason that we spent so much time with him coming to the decision.
The first book in this beginning to a Historical fiction trilogy that weaves the stories of Russian mythology. It follows a wild hearted protagonist who was definitely a trailblazer born into the wrong century.
Ease of reading: 7/10
Character Development: 6/10
World Building: 6/10
Quality of Writing: 6/10