The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
The Bear and the Nightingale is one of those gorgeous nuggets of a book that you simply devour. As soon as I read the synopsis, I wanted this book, in fact, lets be honest, as soon as I saw the cover – I wanted this book – which might sound fickle, because you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover after all. However, fickle or not, the inside of this book is more than a match for the outer packaging.
This is definitely my sort of book. The writing is really quite beautiful, the author almost hypnotises you, she lulls you into a false sense of security with a beginning that draws you slowly in with the promise of folklore, myth, icy forests and fairytales retold and then before you know it the temperature has dropped further, menace is in the air and threatening shadows lurk in the darkest corners.
As we begin the story we make the acquaintance of the Vladimirovich family. Pyotr the father, a hard but fair man for the times in which he lives, he is thought well of by the people in the village. He loves his wife and is devastated when he loses her in childbirth. For seven years he resists taking a new bride, and only relents to try and bring a woman into his home to help with his youngest daughter, Vasilisa, who is becoming unruly. Unfortunately, whilst his new wife, Anna, seems like a good match things are not quite as they seem. Anna sees demons everywhere and literally lives in fear, upon her insistence the village is blessed with a new holy man in the form of Konstantin. Konstantin has dreams of success and power, he resents being sent out to the middle of nowhere and believes that in order to succeed he must make the people from the village recant their ways and worship only God. And there starts the problems. Poor harvests, colder, longer winters and eventually death ensue. The village people begin to feel scared, their homes are impossible to keep warm, they never have enough food and portents of evil seem to linger in the forest.
Vasilisa is a great character. I really liked her, she’s spirited and wild. She loves the forest. She loves being told fairytales by her nurse Dunya. Like Anna – she also sees things but rather than cowering she addresses them. She feels like she knows these spirits and guardians and feels no fear of them. In fact quite the reverse, she understands the role they play in the everyday balance of the village and more to the point she fears the repercussions on everyone if these spirits start to fade. I couldn’t help but shake my fist in despair on Vasilisa’s behalf. Okay, you have to remember these were superstitious times but ohhhh, the frustration! Vasilisa seems to be taken the wrong way at every turn and even when she does a good deed it’s taken the wrong way. Mutterings of ‘witch’ are starting to break out and the village seem to be on the verge of hysteria just poised on the edge of pointing the finger at the most appropriate scapegoat.
So, we have a wild and wilful daughter, a harsh stepmother, a hysterical village, a whole bunch of spirits and guardians, and, the star of the piece – Morozko. Sorry, I thought I’d save the best to last. Basically, this character is Frost. Cold, curious, capricious and more. For many moons he has been interested in Vasilisa and on more than one occasion the two of them have met. Not a character to be dallied with but definitely one that I would have liked to see more of. In fact, that’s probably one of my only criticisms. I would have liked more of the fairytale/folklore elements of the book and I certainly would have liked more of Frost. I actually like the pacing of the book, I admit that in terms of plot, well, it’s not very substantial, but going into this thinking of it as a fairy tale retelling I wasn’t expecting some form of great epic adventure. What I expected was writing that evokes feelings and creates atmosphere and in that respect Arden more than succeeds – you could virtually feel the cold and the hunger that the family suffered. She also manages to tempt us with maybe things of the future yet to come and I really appreciate the sense of anticipation that she has created. There is only the barest hint of a romance, it skirts tentatively around the edges of the story tempting us but doesn’t really ever manifest in more than the most ethereal form. It’s just so deliciously tempting and elusive.
On the whole though, I loved this and with a couple more books in the pipeline you can colour me happy!
I received a copy of this from the publisher through Netgalley for which my thanks. The above is my own opinion.