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

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

“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.

(More below the fold…)