Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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.

To be quite honest, it took me a while to get into The Bear and the Nightingale. It started off really slow and even though I’d read the synopsis, I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about. I knew it was supposed to be a folklore retelling/fantasy, but it didn’t feel that way at first. Once I got deeper into the story, it really started to click with me.

Vasilisa is the only member of her family that can see the old household spirits that have been in her home and village for centuries. Everyone thinks she’s just odd, and perhaps a bit crazy. When her new stepmother joins the family, and a new catholic priest moves to town, the village begins to fear God and ignore the old spirits. The old spirits begin to fade and the village begins suffer.

The Bear and the Nightingale is about one girl who refuses to walk the line of propriety and defies those around her to keep her family safe. She doesn’t care if she’s thought of as crazy, but she learns to hide that she can see things others can’t. She’s strong willed and defiant, and out of her time. At times, the book made me really angry – not from any of the fantasy aspects, but from how Vasilisa is treated by almost everyone in her life. I understand it takes place in approximately late 1700 - early 1800s Russia, and that was par for the course at the time, but it didn’t stop me from being upset on her behalf.

I really enjoyed the fantasy side of the story, but not so much the real life aspects. Vasilisa’s stepmother is horrible, so is the priest, her family only partially stands by her, and she has to hide much of herself. Despite all of this, she manages to keep on pushing and fighting. I think it sets a great example. If you enjoy fantasy, folklore, or historical pieces, I think you should give this one a try.

US Release Date: January 10, 2017
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*I received a copy of book in exchange for an honest review



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