During this cold week I’m recommending a novel inspired by Russian history and folklore. “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden has only just been published, so the choice is between hardback and ebook editions. The charming cover of the British hardback looks more tropical than Russian. The American cover features a dramatic snow scene which is truer to the atmosphere of this dark and wintry book.
On the edge of a forest in medieval Russia lived a boyar (lord) called Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife, Marina. She was a daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow but because her mother was rumoured to be a witch, she was married off to a boyar in a remote northern province. This happy marriage produced three children but as Marina’s health failed she longed for a special daughter who would inherit her grandmother’s magic. Marina died after giving birth to a baby girl called Vasilisa (Vasya). Little Vasya was looked after by her older sister and by nurse and storyteller, Dunya.
After six years Pyotr decides that his older daughter needs a husband and his spirited youngest child needs a stepmother. He returns from Moscow with another royal bride, but the neurotic Princess Anna dislikes Vasya and soon has a daughter of her own to favour. The villagers who live on Pyotr’s estate are devout Christians but they also respect the spirits who inhabit the forest and lakes and leave offerings for the ones who protect houses and stables. Vasya has the rare gift of being able to see these spirits. She even befriends some of them, such as the beautiful but dangerous rusalka in the nearby lake and the squat brown domovoi who guards her family home. Her stepmother can see spirits too but she interprets them as demons and is terrified. Princess Anna is grateful when an ambitious young priest, launches a crusade to stop people following the old ways.
As Vasya grows up she has more encounters with spirits and learns to understand the language of horses. When the local people begin to fear Vasya as a witch, her only choices seem to be marriage or a convent. Evil is stirring deep in the forest and dark forces are threatening the village. Weakened by the lack of belief and offerings, the ancient spirits can no longer offer protection against wolves, fire and the walking dead. Vasya, and a magical jewel given to her by a mysterious stranger, may be the only hope…
This debut novel has been launched with much publicity and endorsements from big name Fantasy authors such as Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik. I think the hype is mainly justified. “The Bear and the Nightingale” isn’t as distinctive as Catherynne M.Valente’s mesmerizing Russian-based Fantasy “Deathless” but it is beautifully written and has a most appealing heroine. I was hooked as soon as the old nurse began telling the tale of King Frost. I’ve always been attracted to Russian Fairy Tales, which abound in forceful female characters and magical creatures. I have already recommended one trilogy based on them – Peter Morwood’s “Prince Ivan Saga” (April 2013). Morwood’s novels are primarily dramatizations of specific Russian Fairy Tales with added historical elements. The early chapters of “The Bear and the Nightingale” read more like an historical family saga with added Fairy Tale elements.
Arden has spent some time living and studying in Moscow and it shows in her vivid descriptions of the Russian landscapes and climate. Through young Vasya’s eyes, we see the beauty of the great forests which cover much of northern Russia but it also becomes clear that this is a harsh land. In a bad season, even the wealthy are reduced to living on black bread and cabbage soup for months on end. Weather is very important in this novel. Vasya and her family endure suffocatingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Family life is literally centered on the kitchen stove, which everyone sleeps around in freezing weather. Arden is excellent on domestic detail and family dynamics. All the members of the Vladimirovich family are well-rounded individuals. I was sorry when Vasya’s kindly elder sister and interesting oldest brother disappeared from the plot to go and live in Moscow but there is plenty of precedent for that kind of exit in Russian literature.
It is now more or less compulsory in historical Fantasy for the heroine to be a bold rule-breaker who refuses to accept the limited roles available to women. Vasya does fit this profile but she is also convincing as a child of her era. She tries to be a dutiful daughter but cannot conceal her unusual abilities. The men in Vasya’s family may find her hard to understand but they aren’t shown as oppressive and the author doesn’t criticize Vasya’s gentle sisters for choosing more traditional female roles. The plot requires a cruel stepmother but Arden made me feel sorry for the hysterical Anna who has been deprived of the quiet convent life which was her heart’s desire and forced into marriage. I sometimes felt that Arden was torn between writing a realistic historical novel exploring the plight of women and writing Fantasy. Vasya is told several times that she can’t escape a woman’s usual fate because she isn’t living in a Fairy Tale but it turns out that she is.
The tone of this novel becomes much darker about three-quarters of the way through and the supernatural elements escalate. There are gruesome episodes which could come from a Horror novel when Vasya finds herself facing a demon who wants “to eat the world” (The Bear) and dealing with the walking dead. Anna suddenly behaves like a Fairy Tale stepmother and demands that Vasya find snowdrops in midwinter or be banished from her family home. From this point on, Vasya is immersed in a thrilling Fairy Tale world of danger and magic. We finally meet the Nightingale character and learn more about the enigmatic Frost King. The story ends back in the heart of a changed family but there is plenty of scope for a sequel. I would gladly follow brave Vasya on another adventure. Until next time…