It is medieval Russia, in Northern Rus’, in the cold late winter, and an old woman is about to tell a story. It is a story about frost and death; the old woman sits in the kitchen with the fire against her back, and the children of Pyotr Vladimirovich gather around her, eager to hear. As the tale is told, our heroine has not been born yet. Her life comes with a cost, as her mother, Marina, will die giving birth to her. When Vasya grows into the world, she, ugly and odd, with her wide eyes and shiny black hair, will love the wilderness, the horses and the household spirits, she will love freedom, and the story of Morozko, the demon of winter.
The death of Vasilisa’s mother sets off a series of events, and in a way, it is really Marina who is the catalyst of our story. For it is Marina’s will more than anything that brings Vasilisa and her destiny to life.
“It is done?” asked Marina. She laid her comb aside and began to plait her hair. Her eyes never left the oven.
“Yes,” said Pyotr, distractedly. He was stripping off his kaftan in the grateful warmth. “A handsome ram. And its mother is well, too—a good omen.”
“I am glad of it, for we shall need one,” she said. “I am with child.”
Pyotr started, caught with his shirt half off. He opened his mouth and closed it again. It was, of course, possible. She was old for it, though, and she had grown so thin that winter…
“Another one?” he asked. He straightened up and put his shirt aside.
Marina heard the distress in his tone, and a sad smile touched her mouth. She bound the end of her hair with a leather cord before replying. “Yes,” she said, flicking the plait over her shoulder. “A girl. She will be born in autumn.”
His wife heard the silent question. “I wanted her,” she said. “I want her still.” And then, lower: “I want a daughter like my mother was.”
Rich in folklore, Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is really not so much a book about magic, but is a story of defying, and how we go to meet the truth of ourselves – our sense of identity and soul – with pursuit and bravery. Though Vasilisa is different, and is apart from her siblings, this is not the story. The story is how Vasilisa knows who she is and what she could become, what she wants to become, and against the grain, she pursues it ruthlessly.
Some books resonate within us. This book was one of those for me. As a child who ditched school to go play in the woods, and pushed back against the walls of her world tirelessly, reading Vasilisa’s journey was like a memory. (Albeit, much more fantastical.) Katherine Arden’s prose in many instances seems as poetry, rolling hills carrying the characters and the harsh land. This is a book that washes over you. From the tortured stepmother, Anna, to the tyrannically pious Konstantin, the players of Arden’s fairy tale curl off the page like smoke, and you can breathe them.
And our heroine is courageous. Regardless that it is supposedly some 500+ years in the past, Vasilisa’s struggles still feel relevant today. Despite the forces against her, Vasilisa remains fearless and determined, both loyal to her loved ones, and to herself. The book builds well, crescendo-ing rather suddenly, making the last several chapters real page turners, and when the book is done there is a haunting sense of more and incompleteness, a bittersweetness, that I personally loved. When finished, I hugged The Bear and the Nightingale to my chest, and sighed.
I would absolutely recommend this novel. It is a wonderful read. Katherine Arden is kind to herself, and allows her inventiveness to take root and grow wild, not worrying too much about her historical accuracy or pulling her hair over transliteration and “the rules”. She plucks our leading lady, Vasilisa, straight out of a real Russian fairy tale, and takes the bit of fire and runs with it. The chill, vastness, and mystery of 1300’s Russia feels wholly complete, even though so much of its history has been lost.
So go on and read The Bear and the Nightingale. The gushing freeze and magnetism that is medieval Russia is captured, and Vasilisa is your guide. Myth is in the air, an oppressing disaster looms and dark omens crowd, but Vasya is strong, and her story will pull you out of the dark.
Five out of five stars.