Hey you all! I don’t know what it is this month, but I’ve only read extraordinary books. Today I’m going to discuss Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightingale, a truly mesmerizing and awesomely written book. I have to confess that I bought this one purely because of the cover and because the book was compared to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Since I absolutely fell in love with Uprooted I decided to just go ahead and buy this book and, boy, did I struck gold!!! The Bear and the Nightingale is a work of writing art ❤ Let me tell you what the book is about and why I fell in love with it.
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.
For the first time I don’t really know where to start my review. This book was just all around awesome! I loved Katherine’s writing style. It’s lyrical, dark, and slow burning. The way in which she describes life in the cold stretches of the countryside in Russia in the 16th century is truly amazing. With her lush and elaborate descriptions she manages to transport her readers backwards in time towards an age full of superstition, inequality and hardships. Everything I loved in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Novik’s Uprooted is combined in this novel: a slow pace, descriptive writing, magic, small minded villagers, an unlikely hero who refuses to let circumstances and the way people perceive him or her get him or her down, an ancient evil, and a grumpy mentor.
Another thing I loved is the theme of religion versus folklore and the supernatural. It has always been a personal fascination of mine how Christianity managed to suppress peoples believe in supernatural beings as deities, house spirits etc. In this book Arden explores this theme majestically. When Father Konstantin comes to the village where Vasya/ Vasilisa and her family live much is changed. Konstantin doesn’t want people to honor the old gods and house spirits and forces them to put all their faith in God. Vasya, however, is one of the few people who possesses the second sight and she sees what the consequences of not honoring the ancient beings are. Because the less people believe in their house spirits, the more they weaken and the flimsier the barriers of protection against evil become. Worse, still, is the fact that with the weakening of the protective barriers comes the rising of an ancient evil that hungers for death and destruction. Another thing I loved was the fact that Arden portrays Konstantin as a man of many flaws, but with a strong conviction in the rightness of what he does and believes. Even though Konstantin is at times very unlikeable I was fascinated by this character.
And then Vasilisa herself … Vasya was such a realistic and cool main character. All her life she has been told that she is not as pretty as her sisters, that she is weird and that the only options she has in life are marriage or joining a convent. But, Vasya knows that those two options are not for her. She doesn’t want to be a slave to a man and she doesn’t want to be locked up in a cold building honoring a distant God. So, she plays in the woods, gets to know all the spirits and supernatural creatures no one else seems to see and is taught skills that no girl should possess, including riding bareback on a horse. When she gets older people start calling her witch and evil. And when darkness stirs and demons gather around the village Vasya becomes a scapegoat for all that befalls the villagers.
Vasya’s struggles were so realistic and at times heartbreaking that I couldn’t help but root for her and hope that she would manage to get free of her circumstances. I loved the way in which Vasya refused to adhere to what she should do and how she should act as a woman and just forged her own path ❤
The pace of this book starts out slow. As a reader you get sucked into Vasya’s world and get to know her and her family. You begin to love her brothers Kolya, Sacha and Alyosha, and her sisters Olga and Irina. Her father Pyotr sometimes seems strong and a loveable man and other times he’s weak and you start to hate him a bit. Her stepmom Anna is a harder character to love because she can be cruel and mean, but other times you feel sorry for her. I loved how human all the characters were; just ordinary people with good and bad qualities. The supernatural characters were portrayed just as well. I loved how these ‘demons’ balanced between good and evil and how they interacted with Vasya. I really liked Morozko’s character and hope that he plays an even bigger role in the sequel. He’s wonderfully mysterious. Once you get to know all these characters and the world is set firmly in place the pace kicks up and races towards an incredible climax that was beautifully written and composed.
I don’t want to betray too much of what happens in the book, so, you can experience the epic writing and story all for yourself ❤ I will suffice with saying that this is an astonishing book with an awesome and realistic main character, elaborate and gorgeous worldbuilding based on historical research, which explores several interesting themes, is extremely suspenseful and is written in such a realistic and magical way that you will keep turning pages. This is definitely a must read!