Tag Archives: Russia

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Bear and the NightingaleVasilisa’s mother died when she was born, but Marina had known that she was carrying a daughter who would have the Sight like her grandmother. Pyotr, Vasya’s father, was heartbroken to lose his beloved wife, and he didn’t remarry until his daughter was old enough for the villagers to start whispering that she was a witch. She was a strange girl, talking to the domovoi in the fireplace and the spirits in the barn and forest. They took care of the family, crops, and animals as long as people left offerings to them and treated them with respect.

Pyotr’s new wife, Anna, arrived with a priest in tow. Anna was a royal bride whose marriage conveniently removed her from court where the Moscovites were beginning to catch on that the Grand Prince’s daughter was mad. As a matter of fact, Anna could see the same supernatural creatures as Vasya, but she did not welcome them. Rather, her sanity was being destroyed by fear. At the same time, although Konstantin Nikonovich had planned a powerful future for himself among the clergy of Moscow,  it suited his leader more to banish him to Pyotr’s small village up north, where he could paint his icons and force the villagers to pray to them instead of leaving offerings for Baba Yaga.

Before leaving Moscow with his bride, Pyotr met a terrifying, blue-eyed man in the market who gave him a beautiful jewel the same color as his eyes, telling him to give it to his daughter. When Pyotr showed it to Vasya’s nurse, she promised to give it to her soon, when she was a bit older and could appreciate it more. And yet the years went by, and Vasya did not even know about her jewel the day she wandered too far into the forest on a freezing cold night. Lost and confused, she turned toward approaching hoofbeats and looked into the blue eyes of Morozko, the Frost Demon.

Based on Russian fairy tales and folklore, this dark, enthralling story keeps the pages turning with beauty, terror, and a hint of romance. Vasilisa (Vasya) is a strong, courageous heroine who tries to be obedient to her father while remaining true to herself. She does not want to marry or to go to a convent, the only two paths open to women at that time, but she is willing to marry if she must. She also tries to be open to the faith of Konstantin and Anna, but she will not forsake the “old ways.” As in many classic tales, and certainly today, Vasya is portrayed as admirable because she eschews the traditional feminine role of quietness and submission for a more physically active and outspokenly nonconformist life. As a “wise woman,” she understands the ways of nature and cares for the needs of people and animals. These traits gain her the love and admiration of some, yet the fear and distrust of others.

As a believer, the straw man Christianity and the stock character of the evil clergyman were stumbling blocks in what was otherwise a fantastic reading experience. If you revel in traditional, pre-Disney fairy stories, ancient and magical tales passed down in front of centuries of crackling fireplaces, you will rush home to this book each evening. As you finish, you can have the joy of knowing that the sequel to what is now the “Winternight Trilogy,” The Girl in the Tower, was just published. Happy reading!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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