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.

 

This book, man, this book…. I haven’t loved a fantasy novel so much in quite some time and the fact that it combined two of my favourite genres (fantasy and historical fiction) made me giddy with excitement. Add some of the most fleshed-out characters I’ve ever encountered and you’re bound for an emotional rollercoster and a fantastic read!

I’ve seen this book called slow-burner in many reviews, and not without reason. It’s not a book that relies on its fast pace and adventurous scenes. The Bear and the Nightingale is such a deeply atmospheric book, I can’t help but wonder if Arden has been influenced by Donna Tarrt’s pacing and way of story-telling. She has created such a beautiful, magical world, full of promises of monsters, and legends, and horrors that, even though her book is not a “natural” page-turner, you can’t wait to see what happens next.

And just like all good slow-burners and atmospheric books, this one also relies heavily on its characters and setting. Arden does not just describe a Russian setting that seems ripped out of the pages of a fairytale; she embellishes her story with multi-dimentional, layered characters that carry the entire book on their soldiers. The best by far is Vasilisa (or Vasya, as her family calls her) a young girl with a fearless, wild heart. At time’s she reminded me of Anderson’s Tiger Lily , a girl I will forever hold close to my heart.

I also loved almost the entirety of Vasya’s siblings, with Alyosha, Sasha and Irina being some of my favourites as well, and characters I hope we’ll see more of in the following book(s). Together, they all created such an amazing cast of characters and I hope to see them reunited pretty soon. I can’t help but notice now, how much they remind me of the Starks from the A song of Ice and Fire series, both because of their family loyalty and their commitment to each other, as well as my anticipation for an upcoming reunion.

What really impressed me in Arden’s story is how cleverly she avoided tropes and stereotypes. We have an evil step-mother; except we don’t, not really. She has her own motives, her own agendas and struggles, and they’ve nothing to do with tormenting Vasya for pleasure. We have a step-sister that could’ve easily been turned into a mean girl. Instead, we got a loyal, caring Irina.

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

 

**An ARCopy was provided via Netgalley in exchange of an honest review**

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