By Megan Lanham
Imagine a land where winter seeps into every season. A place full of cold nights that chill your very bones; with forests covered in thick blankets of hard snow, and trees glazed with ice. This is the world Katherine Arden’s debut book “The Bear and The Nightingale” transports the reader to. A world of medieval Russia where both history and myth coexist.
This story follows Vasilisa Petrovna, the youngest child of a wealthy boyar of a small village in northern Russia. A feisty and wild girl, as an heir to old magic, her mother dies in childbirth to pass on the enchantment of her lineage. Vasya can see spirits, creatures of the hearth, stable, lake and woods who all populate the landscape just as her people do. Though she keeps this supernatural gift a secret as she is the only one who can see them. That is until her father remarries. Vasya realizes her new stepmother can see spirits as well, but she is horrified by them. She calls them demons, prohibiting Vasya from interacting with them. Though something is waking from its slumber in the woods. Something that is as old and more horrible than even the Winter King himself. It’s coming for Vasya and all that she holds dear.
This book is obviously a work of love for Katherine Arden. She weaves an intimate knowledge of russian history into not only the daily lives of her characters, but everything from the creatures of the myth to the house-dwelling domovoi to the cruel, unforgiving Winter King. It brings on a very solid evocation of an ancient Russia without getting too caught up on the details.
One of my favorite things from this book is Vasya’s family and deep bond they all share. She has many brothers and sisters who love one another dearly even when they fight, an ardent father and a grandmotherly nurse. The reader spends their time with them surviving from winter to winter as Vasya grows and they change as well.
If you’re missing winter or want a exotic spin on a fairytale, “The Bear and The Nightingale ” is an absolute delight to lose yourself in. I’d suggest picking it up if you’re looking for something new to read.