Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden (2017)

January 11th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and child abuse.)

“What happened?” she asked.

“My fish are gone! Some durak from the village must have come and …”

But Vasya was not listening. She had run to the very brink of the river.

“It’s not yours!” she shouted. “Give it back!” Kolya thought he heard an odd note in the splash of the water, as though it was making a reply. Vasya stamped her foot. “Now!” she yelled. “Catch your own fish!” A deep groan came up from the depths, as of rocks grinding together, and then the basket came flying out of nowhere to hit Vasya in the chest and knock her backward. Instinctively, she clutched it, and turned a grin on her brother.

“A prophecy then, sea-maiden.”

“Why do you call me that?” she whispered.

The bannik drifted up to the bench beside her. His beard was the curling steam. “Because you have your great-grandfather’s eyes. Now hear me. You will ride to where earth meets sky. You will be born three times: once of illusions, once of flesh, and once of spirit. You will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, weep for a nightingale, and die by your own choosing.”

Marina, thought Pyotr. You left me this mad girl, and I love her well. She is braver and wilder than any of my sons. But what good is that in a woman? I swore I’d keep her safe, but how can I save her from herself?

Vasilisa Petrovna is born to a lord and a princess, on the edge of the Russian wilderness, many centuries ago. She comes on the tail of the first howling winds of November, and her mother Marina leaves the earth shortly thereafter. Vasya is raised by her four older siblings – Kolya, Sasha, Olga, and Alyosha – and her mother’s aging nurse, Dunya. And, to a lesser extent, her father Pyotr Vladimirovich: every time Pyotr looks into the face of his screeching child, he sees the ghost of his dead wife. So mostly he avoids dealing with her too much.

With time, Vasya grows wild and bold, just like Marina intended. She can see creatures that others cannot, the chyerty of the old religion: The domovoi, household-spirits who guard the home; the vodianoy in the river and the twig-man in the trees; the vazila, who are one with the horses; the rusalka, the polevik, and the dvornik. Vasya feeds them with bread and friendship; she fortifies their strength and, in return, they teach her their secrets: how to talk to animals, swim like a fish, and climb trees like no human child should be able to.

Marina’s mother, you see, had the gift of second sight. While Marina had only a little of her mother’s gifts, she knew that Vasya would have even more. Much more. A prophecy told her as much. Yet in a Rus’ caught between the old religion and Christianity, Vasya’s neighbors whisper that she’s a witch who cavorts with demons. The arrival of Father Konstantin only deepens the rift between worlds, as do the snow, fire, and famine that follow swiftly on his heels. Though she just wants to keep her family and her village safe, Vasya will soon find herself caught in the middle of a struggle between two ancient forces.

Based in part on the Russian Jack Frost (see, e.g.), The Bear and the Nightingale is an epic and sprawling fairy tale that’s packed with whimsical touches and has a wonderfully feminist bent. Vasya is a captivating heroine, and it’s a delight to watch her grow from a sprightly toddler to a tomboyish kid and, finally, a bold and courageous young woman. Despite the amount of shade that’s thrown her way, Vasya risks life and freedom to save her kinsmen and women from themselves.

The struggle between Christianity (as personified by Father Konstantin) and the old gods is compelling, and Konstantin makes for a complicated – yet ultimately vain – villain. In many ways, this plot thread reminded me of His Dark Materials: the Church’s demonization of Lyra in general and, more specifically, Father Gomez’s pursuit of Lyra and Will. While you might think, upon his introduction, that Konstantin will be the story’s Big Bad, this isn’t necessarily so. For a time there, I thought I knew where the story was headed – but it took a delightfully unexpected twist.

I also really loved Alyosha and Dunya, all the animals, and of course the many spirits Vasya encounters during her travels: some of them friendly, others cruel, all necessary and vital to this ecosystem we call life.

It’s hard to undersell the “epic and sprawling” part, and it’s essential to know that this is just the first installment in a planned trilogy. I didn’t realize this until I started researching for the review, and so the ending took me aback a little. Out of context, it’s pretty abrupt. So I was pretty psyched to read that we haven’t seen the last of Vasya.

Incidentally, I was left with some unanswered questions – Who is the nightingale in this story, Alyosha or Solovey? What is the significance of the necklace? Why is Morozko considered cruel, when thus far he’s been nothing but kind and helpful? – which I hope will also be explored more fully in the sequels.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not a whole lot. The story is set in Russia in the 1500s (?). The youngest of five children, Vasilisa’s mother Marina died hours after she was born. Vasya and her stepmother Anna see “demons” – household spirits, wood sprites, etc.; Anna and her contemporaries in Moscow view this as a mark of “madness,” while in the edge of the Russian wilderness, Vasya’s neighbors whisper that she is a witch.

Rape and child abuse are common, and were widely considered acceptable at the time. For example, Anna was forced to marry Pyotr even though it was her wish to join a convent; and Pyotr was strong-armed into marrying Anna, even though he was in the process of negotiating marriage to a different woman. Pyotr didn’t want any more children, but “had sex” with Anna anyway, as it was his husbandly duty – even though she just cried and lay there the whole time: “Though he tried to be gentle, he was insistent, and most of the time she wanted to be left alone.”

Animal-friendly elements: Mostly n/a, though Vasya’s ability to communicate with animals suggests that they are sentient.

 

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