Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale By: Katherine Arden
Vasilisa loves the fairy tales her nurse tells by the family's fireside. Her favorite is of the winter-demon, Morozko, who appears in the cold night of winter to claim weary souls. Russians who are wise fear him, and honor the spirits of the house, yard, and forest that protect their homes from evil. When Vasilisa's mother dies, her father sets off to Moscow to bring home a wife and mother for his children. Once there, as a devout woman from the city, she forbids the people of their village from honoring the household spirits.
Crops fail, people die, fear, and fire come to the village. Vasilisa knows what causes the fear and tries with all her might to stop it. Her stepmother grows harsher in her determination to stop Vasilisa from her rebellious and wild ways and threatens to either marry her off or send her to a convent.
As danger comes nearer and nearer, Vasilisa must call upon powers she has long hidden and defy everyone she loves. She does this to protect her home and family from the very demons her nurse warned them about in her fairy tales.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical adventure set in medieval Russia. The fairy tale of the Morozko (the Russian Jack Frost) looms large and is the main focus of the story. Katherine Arden did a beautiful job of marrying a long told myth/fairy tale and putting it in a real historical time period. She wrote her characters in a way that made it feel like it could have actually happened. My favorite character by far was that of Vasilisa. Her rebel spirit and ability to not be afraid made me root for her no matter what happened throughout the story.
My favorite dynamic in the story came from two places. The relationship between Vasilisa and the priest Konstantin and Vasilisa and Morozko. Konstantin constantly struggles with Vasilisa's wild personality and the defiance she has for just about everything he says and does. She believes in keeping the pagan spirits at bay and he is there to save them all and bring them to Christ. The drama of the story really starts once he arrives on the scene. Vasilisa and Morozko's relationship doesn't really start until near the end of the book, but the two characters are truly meant for each other. Though Morozko is known to be cruel (he does represent death after all), there is a softness he shows Vasilisa that makes him a likable character.
The whole feel of the story reminded me very much of a Hans Christian Anderson or Grimms Fairy Tale and I think that's why I love it. It can be a dark story but has heart and leaves you with wanting more.