The Bear and the Nightingale
In her debut novel, THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE, Katherine Arden vaults herself into the historical fantasy stratosphere. She’s the new, glittering star amidst longtime luminaries like Naomi Novik and Joanne Harris. Arden paints a stark, yet enchanting, portrait of a medieval Russian landscape and the battle between ancient ghosts that refuse to be laid to rest and the hard, glittering new allure of Christianity and its adherents.
Meet Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the unruly, spirited daughter of a Russian noble. Her mother died at Vasya’s birth; as the youngest of a large family, the young girl is allowed to run wild in the northern forests. A haze of magic hangs over the woods and the Petrovich estate, where the age-old spirits of Russia past linger, on the verge of fading into mere fairy tales, but visible to a select few --- including Vasya.
"Arden paints a stark, yet enchanting, portrait of a medieval Russian landscape and the battle between ancient ghosts that refuse to be laid to rest and the hard, glittering new allure of Christianity and its adherents."
Content to remain amongst her siblings, Vasya’s world is turned upside down when her father heads to Moscow, meets a mysterious stranger who gives him a jewel for Vasya, and returns with a husband for her sister and a new bride for himself. Her new stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, is reputedly mad, but it turns out that she simply sees the same otherworldly beings as Vasya. Tormented by what she thinks are demons, Anna lashes out at her rebellious stepdaughter and attaches herself to the village’s new priest.
But amidst trouble at home, Vasya is haunted by specters, vampires and zombies that encroach on her home. The spirit world is dying, and it’s up to this witchy young woman to save it, all while dodging her vengeful stepmother, her disapproving father, and the two creatures battling for her very soul: a grasping frost creature and the Lord of Death himself.
Arden makes northern Russia a lush, evocative background for a young girl’s journey to womanhood and self-actualization. Vasya is an appealing heroine, one whose determination to save the old ways and whose clear-eyed perspective are the magical world’s northern star. The author does wait quite a long time to actually bring Vasya fully into the Otherworld, and her compelling scenes in that realm are far too short. But the magic is otherwise alive and well throughout THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE.
Reviewed by Carly Silver on January 13, 2017