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.
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 4.13 out of 5
It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary grey of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffing from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.
I suck so much.
Is there a description that describes the level of suck I am? Uber sucker? Ultra suckerino? Mucho sucko?
The reason I suck is because I do ‘this thing’ and ‘this thing’ goes like this: –
- I read a book
- I really like the book
- I think about why I like it and usually come to the conclusion it’s because it’s a topic I enjoy, there’s original content, the characters are flawed but interesting, the setting is unique and the writing is awesome
- I think about what I’m going to write on this blog about the book to convey how much I enjoyed it and how everyone should read it
- I start thinking how I wish I wrote the book
- I daydream that I did, in fact, write the book
- I remember that I haven’t even written a review yet and start to feel The Guilt
- I reads another few books
- I keep thinking about how I really should write up that review
- I comes to write up that review
- I realise a couple of months has passed
- I come to the understanding that my memory is rubbish and that I should begin to write notes when reading
- I come onto my blog to write a review anyway
- I fill it with waffle to distract from the fact that I should have written the review sooner.
Ugh. I don’t like when I call myself out like this.
This is why I suck – because I have such fondness for The Bear and the Nightingale but I wish I had written everything down more concisely at the time I’d finished reading it so that you had a more coherent and well thought out review instead of the inevitable pile of rubbish that you’re going to have to wade through.
Wow. I really sell my blog posts don’t I?
I’ve tried to do what I can but please don’t take my lack of detail as a bad sign of the book. Any lack of detail is because I should be better at writing up reviews or at least, get better at taking notes.
First and foremost, when I look back (despite not being able to remember the exact reasons why) I have warm, fuzzy feelings for The Bear and the Nightingale. I know that I can’t wait to read book two in the trilogy and the only reason I am waiting to read it is because I want book three to be out so than I can read that one immediately after.
If you’re a regular follower then you’ll know that I love fairy tales and I love folktales and mythology but I am sad to report that my knowledge of Russian and Slavic fairy tales and folktales is seriously lacking. This means that I don’t know whether the tales and stories represented in The Bear are done well and unfortunately I’m not really able to pick up any subtle ones or small nods to the mythology.
Because of this I can’t say whether the writer has captured the ethos of the myths she was writing about. I am, however, very keen to get the perspective of those who do. I’ve read reviews where The Bear seems to have been a ‘miss’ for some people due to inaccuracies and misrepresentation of the Russian culture and myths. Again, I can’t comment on this element but I welcome comments from those with greater knowledge.
What I can comment on is how much I adored the premise of this book because it doesn’t matter how many times it’s presented but the idea that belief powers mythological creatures and the lack of belief will starve them is a favourite one of mine.
This is what is happening here.
There are ancient creatures in the woods and people follow their traditions and superstitions to appease them. Everyone lives in harmony until something dark awakens. Unfortunately at the same time this happens, a new religious figure and all-round Nice Guy (note: not a nice guy) comes into play to try and drive people from ‘the old ways.’
Sadly, he is more successful than you’d want him to be. But yay, because…. plot. The lack of belief and sacrifice means that those creatures, whose duty is to protect home and hearth, start to fade away leaving the door open, literally and figuratively, for harm to enter.
But it’s ok. They have Vasya.
Vasya is a witch with second sight and can see the creatures that others can’t. Other people believe in them (before their belief fades) but Vasya can interact with them. As things end up going, she gets herself embroiled in events that are larger than she can handle.
Part of this is due to the element of fate but the other part is because that’s the kind of person she is. She’s wilful and independent and longs for freedom from the choices made for her but is steadfastly loyal to those who are loyal to her.
Vasya may be our main character but she isn’t our sole point of view and this means that we skim through a large cast of characters via multiple third person point of view.
At first, I was hesitant because this isn’t my favoured approach and I was wanting more from Vasya’s POV. But here? Actually I found that it worked having multiple perspectives. This way we can see how other people interpret the events that are occurring and it seems to highlight to us the reader, the odds that Vasya has stacked against her.
The multiple POVs also serve to make secondary characters well rounded – even those who are the villains. Konstantin our Nice Guy priest is a deeply traditional religious man who believes in what he deems as strong morals. This makes him narrow minded and closed off but we see the deep conflict within him as he pulls a Judge Frollo and isn’t sure whether he wants to kill Vasya or um… the other thing.
Vasya’s stepmother Anna seems to be a character people either hate or have sympathy for and while she does horrid things I actually see her more as a person to be pitied than despised.
Anna too has second sight but instead of embracing what she sees, she believes every household creature is a demon and so seeks solace within religion. Hers is a sad story because she acts as the contrast to Vasya. Anna suffers as a result of her ‘gift’ and her one desperate life wish – to join a convent – is stopped and she is forced to marry Vasya’s father where she suffers further. Her POV really helps challenge your own perceptions of Vasya because the heroine is never really the heroine in everyone’s eyes.
What I especially loved was the relationships that Vasya had with her older siblings, especially Alyosha who was essentially her partner in crime and I am now here for that as one of my top five ‘sibling relationships in fiction.’
What I also enjoyed was the setting. It seems that Russian or Slavic settings are coming to be more on ‘trend’ in the book world and before it passes (as inevitably the cycle of books and trends does) it’s one that I’m enjoying and I would happily read more books set in medieval winter Russian. It helps that Katherine Arden’s writing is so pretty that at times I could really picture the snow and the woods.
The book is a hefty one and at times I could have done with the pace just stepping it up a notch but it always felt like it was intended to be a slow burn with a great raging inferno of a payoff and for me, that’s exactly what it was.
I eagerly anticipate the next ones!!
I will also l try and write better notes next time. No promises though 😉
Here is some gorgeous art I’ve found, just because (before spoilers on the 2nd image though…. don’t scroll down…)