The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
This is a spoiler-free review.
Vasya has always been different. She is a creature of the old ways; the dark forest near her home in northernmost Russia is her playground and the creatures therein are her companions. No one else in Vasya’s village can see them, but they leave offerings and pay their respects to the old gods. Life is hard, but Vasya’s family and her people are happy. Then things begin to change. Vasya’s father remarries a fiercely devout woman, and one day a favored priest from Moscow comes to the church and preaches fear of the Christian God and eternal damnation. Caught up in the charismatic priest’s teachings, the people begin to abandon the old ways — all except Vasya — and the darkness within the surrounding woods begins to grow and evil begins to spread. Armed with only her wild nature and a mysterious gift from her childhood, Vasya must find a way to save her people.
First things first: the jacket copy on my edition of this book was pretty misleading. If you go into this book expecting to be immediately swept away into a battle of good versus evil with one girl who can save everyone, this isn’t really what you’re going to get. Instead this is the story of Vasya from her conception through to her teenage years as she struggles against the men and women in her life who would tame her for a role in a society in which she does not belong. While you get those exciting bits, it is a slow burn and builds up the Vasya’s world and the characters in it.
Here we have a book that is more than just a fairy tale, although it contains classic fairy tale elements. You have your wild girl child, a dark forest, otherworldly creatures, and an evil stepmother who replaces the kind and loving mother after her death. There’s something about Arden’s prose that evokes the tales of one’s childhood and the comfort they bring while mixing in the creeping horror from both human and magical beings. Despite the wealth of fairy tale tropes, Arden manages to keep the book fresh; it feels more like magical realism in a world many of us can recognise rather than a more straightforward fairy tale like Uprooted. Vasya and many of the characters around her are complicated, with most of them only doing what they genuinely believe is right. While Vasya grows from a wild girl into a stubborn young woman, she faces a society that would force her into the role of a wife and mother or hide her away and take her freedom. To me, this is the crux of the story and the fairy tale style is an aid for telling Vasya’s story.
I don’t want to say too much because part of the magic is sinking into the story and discovering it for yourself. Part fairy tale, part coming of age story, The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant read for a cold winter’s night.