Author: Katherine Arden
It’s hard to fight a war when you’re the only one who can see your enemy. Vasya has always been able to see the household spirits and wild guardians that few people still believe in and even fewer leave offerings for. What used to be commonly accepted customs have been relegated to mere stories told during the brutal Russian winters. But a bit of bread for the stove-dwelling domovoi is hardly the biggest issue, because if the most innocuous of the fantastical spirits are real, then it’s entirely possible that more malevolent forces are real as well. But will anyone recognize the signs of their coming?
Vasya’s father is a wilderness lord far from the hustle and bustle of Moscow. She has grown up with a deep love for the forest and its magical denizens, maintaining an irrepressible wild streak despite her widowed father’s attempt at giving her a proper young lady’s upbringing. But when Pyotr remarries Anna, the utterly devout daughter of the Grand Prince, the new lady of the house will stop at nothing to bring Vasya’s fierceness to heel.
When the local priest dies and Anna sends for a replacement, she finds her strongest ally in Konstantin. A fiery speaker who has won much adoration for his captivating sermons and stunning icon paintings, Konstantin initially chafes at being sent to such a lowbrow locale. However, he finds renewed zeal when Anna – who does not recognize her Sight nor Vasya’s for what it truly is – professes that the house and land are filled with demons. He makes it his mission to strike the fear of God into the hearts of Pyotr’s people, and rid them of their backcountry superstitions. When Vasya proves to be the sole holdout, he focuses on saving her soul with a manic fervor that quickly crosses the boundary into obsession.
For her part, Vasya would rather go about her life ignoring Anna and Konstantin’s proselytizing. Unfortunately, when the latter two’s efforts mean that people shun the household spirits, she is drawn into the fight. Many of the unseen spirits have no purpose other than to serve and protect the houses they live in, and when people turn their backs they begin to fade, weakening the town’s longstanding protection.
This wouldn’t be an issue if the old stories, told by nurses around the stove at night, had no basis in the real world. But whispers of powerful spirits – demons like the Frost king – are all too real, and one best kept under wraps is waking up. Fear, fire and death become commonplace, and Vasya sees the utter demise of her people that lies at the end of the road Konstantin has set them on. She will have to defy her family in order to save them, and hope that the power within herself is enough to set things right.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a beautiful book, utterly deserving of its spot on the Amazon Book Review’s list of January’s top 5 fantasy and science fiction books. The descriptions of Russian winters are bone-chilling, with such intricate details as people celebrating the arrival of snow because it means the end of a deeper, deadlier frost. We don’t see a lot of metropolitan Moscow, but it’s enough to convince readers of the benefits of Vasya’s simpler way of life. And while Christianity largely gets the shaft (as it often does in fantasy stories), author Katherine Arden made a few important distinctions in her depiction of religious vs. traditional beliefs. Though Konstantin gives every appearance of being a model believer, it’s clear that his desire to be venerated is at sharp odds with the true tenets of his faith. Several times, Vasya openly questions him about whose agenda he is truly advancing.
I have never seen Tsargrad, or angels, or heard the voice of God. But I think you should be careful, Batyushka, that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing.
This, combined with the choices (which I won’t spoil) of Vasya’s brother Sasha – whom Arden has said will play a more prominent role in future books – offer a well-rounded contrast between those who are true believers, and those who have gotten caught up in glamour of earthly rewards.
Since I just referenced it, this seems like a good time to mention that this will be a series, something I was unaware of but was ECSTATIC to learn as I neared the end of The Bear and the Nightingale. This book stands extremely well on its own (i.e. a poignant, powerful ending sans cliffhangers), and Arden has crafted a world with plenty more to be explored. Several of Vasya’s siblings who dropped out of the book early on are said to play more prominent roles in The Girl in the Tower, which is slated for a January 2018 release. I’m interested to see more between Vasya, who feels stifled by traditional women’s roles, and her older sister Olga, who fits into them with grace and poise.
What you call cages is the lot of women.
There’s also a whole realm of magic centered around the Frost king that is utilized to great effect, but I feel like we’ve just dipped our toes into all the possibilities there. We get a tantalizing taste of Frost himself, with signs of hidden depths that go beyond the fairy tales still waiting to be discovered. The occasional use of Russian words and name endings that indicate endearment (Vasya, Vasochka) add a level of cultural richness that you’ll want to sink into. Though if you speak or are well-versed in Russian history, Arden does remark on the linguistic and historical liberties she took in her author’s note.
The Bear and the Nightingale has so much going for it that I really can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to. It you enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Uprooted (review here), this lies very much in the same vein, and vice versa if you decide to read this first. As books that are technically “adult,” they avoid the high-strung emotional angst that often creeps into YA fantasy. That’s not to say there aren’t powerful emotions, though. Vasya loves her family more than anything, and having to go against her father to save him tears at her heart. She’s strong-willed, yet logical, wielding her beliefs and admittedly limited power to keep darkness at bay. The Bear and the Nightingale is a testament to the power of small gestures, the everyday acts that can make or break the unseen fight until things come to a head and someone is finally called to greater sacrifice.