Monday, 3 February 2020

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Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Published: 5th October 2017 | Publisher: Del Rey | Cover Design: Head Design | Cover Illustrations: Aitch | Source: Christmas present
Katherine Arden's Website

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.
From Goodreads.

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I requested The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden on NetGalley when it was originally published, but every time I tried to read it, I wasn't in the right mood for it. But I received a finished copy for Christmas, and have been in the mood lately for enchanting, magical fantasy, and I love a retelling, so I picked it for my first read of the year. And it was brilliant!

'"Wild birds die in cages."' (p250)

Marina was weak and fragile when she fell pregnant with her fifth child, and her husband Pyotr and their nurse Dunya begged her to get rid of the baby, sure she wouldn't survive birth. But Marina is the daughter of a Princess who had magic in her blood, and is determined to have a daughter like her mother. Like Pyotr and Dunya feared, Marina died shortly after her daughter was born, living long enough to name her Vasilisa. As time passes, it becomes clear that Vasya is a wild one. She likes to climb trees and explore the forest when she should be at home mending, and always comes home dirty with leaves in her hair, and to a thrashing. It's decided that Vasya is in need of a mother, so Pyotr goes to Moscow to stay with the Grand Prince, his brother-in-law to look for a wife. The Grand Prince's daughter, Anna, is unwell; she's always looking in corners and talking to things that aren't there. To send her away, he gives her to Pyotr, who, unknowing of her condition, agrees to marry her, as he can't refuse the Grand Prince. Anna is very devout, hoping god will save her from the devils she sees. But she is not the only one to see them, Vasya does, too. They are the household spirits of the old ways, who offerings are left to to keep their homes safe. But when a new priest comes to town, he puts the fear of god into the hearts of the people, and they turn their back on the old ways. As the household spirits grow weaker, something else is awakening, something dark and hungry. And there's only one other who can help Vasya save her people - the feared Frost King.

The Bear and the Nightingale is just so gorgeous! It's enchanting and magical, and absolutely puts you under it's spell. With it's beautiful writing, and fairy tale feel, I was absolutely gripped. I've not read any Russian fairy tales or retellings of them before, so the story is completely new to me. While it's not a straight retelling of a particular story, it features characters from various Russian fairy tales and folklore. It was breathtaking! I couldn't put it down, and completely fell in love with Vasya. The folklore that runs throughout, the household spirits, the horses that talk to Vasya, the forest which is welcoming but hides secrets, the claustrophobic snow, the disembodied voice, the umpyry (vampires) - it all works together to create an eerie atmosphere that is completely addictive. And on top of that, it's a historical fantasy set in Russia before it was Russia, so there's the clothing, the food, the langauge, the way royalty worked. It's just so vivid and real, and just so gorgeous.

What I loved about this story was how feminist it was. Vasya is a young woman who is not like most women - that is to say she doesn't behave the way a woman should. She is not meek and quiet, she doesn't smile and simper. She roams the forest on her own, comes home dirty with damaged clothes, she abandons her mending, she voices her opinions and her objections, and she rides a horse, bareback, like no-one else. She is wild and feral, and people call her witch-woman. Women are not free to do as they please, they are to become wives and bare their husbands sons, or they are to go to a convent to become a nun. These are the only options open to women, and though her father loves her, Pyotr fears for her and how she's being spoken about, and so is swayed by the venomous tongue of his wife Anna, who wants rid of her, as does Father Konstantin, who has motives of his own.

'"All my life," [Vasya] said, "I have been told 'go' and 'come.' I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man's servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me." (p366-367)

She's full of conviction and fire, and she burns so brightly. But she's not a "strong female character." Yes, she's unlike the other women, but that's just her personality. The only reason she fights, the only reason she risks her life is because no-one else can because no-one else knows, no-one else sees. Except for Anna, but Anna believes she is mad or being punished by god. Vasya tries to save her family and her people, even though they criticise her, whisper behind her back, are afraid of her, or despise her, because she's the only one who can. She is frightened, and she's reckless, and doesn't know what to do, but she's got to do something, because who else will? She's brave and courageous, but only until she is not. She's just a teenage girl grappling with things she doesn't fully understand, running towards when she wants to be running away. And I absolutely love her. I love her spirit, and her determination despite her fear, and how she tries. I just think she's brilliant.

I absolutely love this world, and I love Vasya, and I am so excited to continue her story in The Girl int he Tower!

You might also like:

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

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Do you enjoy fantasy set in, or inspired by, non-Western countries? Have you read any other fantasies set in Russia? Are there any other retellings of Vasilisa the Beautiful that you've read, or want to read? Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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1 comment:

  1. I do love Russian fantasy a lot ahh! I haven't read any recently but The Crown's Game and Egg & Spoon are really brilliant. I've got this one on my TBR too. I bought it when it first came out but still haven't gotten to it yet oops.

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