If one word can describe this book, it is atmosphere. Katherine Arden has wonderfully crafted the world of a remote, medieval Russian village in the thickly forested, winter wilderness setting of this book. From the get go, I felt immersed in the world; only reluctantly putting the book down as I realised what the time was each night and that I would be tired and grumpy the next day in work if I didn’t get go to sleep soon.
The Bear and the Nightingale is the story of Vasilisa Petrovna, or Vasya as we get to know her, the daughter of a wealthy Boyar whose lands lie in the far north of 14th-Century Russia. More importantly, she is the daughter of Marina Petrovna, whose grandmother had magical powers, which Vasya has inherited. As Vasya grows, she begins to notice that she is different to her siblings and the other members of her father’s household. Her abilities place her at the centre of the books overarching conflict; the growing power of Christianity against the old pagan beliefs which still inhabit the minds of medieval Russia. The repercussions of this conflict bring grave danger to Vasya and her father’s household. As Christianity’s grip grows stronger and the power of the old beliefs wanes; it falls to Vasya to save her family from the dark powers that lurk in the woods, which were kept at bay by the spirits of the old beliefs.
Vasya, as the protagonist, and her family members are all introduced quickly. The dynamics of the family are happy and loving; Pytor, Vasya’s father, knows she is different to his other sons and daughters but his love and desire to see her happiness overrides his worries about her. Just as you start to get comfortable with these dynamics, they are thrown into chaos by the appearance of two new characters. Anna Petrovna, Pytor’s new wife and devout Christian, and Father Konstantin, a determined and charismatic priest, both accelerate the conflict in the story in their own ways. Anna has the same gift as Vasya, though her strong Christian beliefs lead her to deny them and see them as a curse; a view which she tries to force upon Vasya and the inhabitants of their home. Father Konstantin arrives determined to destroy the old ways and save the souls of the villagers. A lofty but admirable goal, however, his hubris and sense of purpose make him susceptible to the forces of darkness and generate much personal conflict in his mind. This roundness of character, particularly the villains, is a particular strength of this book. While we may not be rooting for them, we can appreciate their point of view. They aren’t faceless monsters, but real characters with their own dreams, desires and believable agendas. Creating a plethora of fascinating and intriguing characters that run through the book. Unfortunately, some of these characters, such as Vasya’s older brother Sasha, disappear without trace at times. Though in this case, I believe he reappears in the sequel, The Girl in the Tower.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, it is the sense of atmosphere Katherine Arden’s writing generates that is the greatest strength of this book. The writing evokes vivid imagery of the bleak, frozen Russian wilderness, as well as the rich cultural setting of the country at this time. Everything about the story feels like it could be real, torn from the pages of history, with even the fantastical elements blended in seamlessly; as you can imagine they would have in the mind of someone from that period. The opening of the story is a perfect example of how she guides us readers into the Russian culture and landscape. By starting with the telling of a fairy tale, as the family huddles together from the biting gripping of midwinter, she winds the magic beautifully into the story while also easing us into the mind of the culture. Something vital to the understand of the conflict of the story.
Unfortunately, the ending of the story seemed a little rushed for me. Suspense is built up wonderfully throughout the book, creating a palpable sense of fear. This does not ultimately quite stand up to what has been built up throughout the story for me; with the darkness not feeling quite as threatening and powerful as it did earlier in the story. It almost felt like the threat level was greater while the evil worked away in the background, where it built a steady feeling of futility and oppression in Vasya and the old spirits which live in the household and its surrounding lands.
Despite this slight flaw, I would happily recommend this book to any and every one who enjoys fantasy and magic in their stories. I’m thoroughly excited to dive into the sequel, which is already out, and continue to read about the adventures of Vasya as she shakes of the shackles that society have placed on her and sets out into the world on her own.