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.
***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley and Del Rey
The Bear and the Nightingale is a love letter to old Rus’.
The other day I found myself missing the Motherland. Once you’ve been to Russia, the spirit of the country latches on to you and you’ll never be able to forget it, even if it forgets you. The Bear and the Nightingale was the perfect answer to my melancholic nostalgia. That being said, rating this book was tricky for me because I love Russian culture so much, so deeply, that it hypnotized and transported me back to those dark and beautiful nights in Moscow and Suzdal and Vladimir and Tolstoy’s estate. I digress, but the point is if you have even the tiniest interest in Russian folklore, the old culture, and adore fairy tales, you’ll be swept up into this rustic and romantic tale of a girl kissed by magic and determined to save her people.
Side note: Throughout the story I yelled at the book in Russian. Like full on what is this??? yelling. The transliteration irked me to no end and then I got to the end of the book and I laughed so hard. That author’s note made my day. She explained her choices and described how she though Russian speakers/students would react to the transliteration-with disdain and hands pretty much clenched in fists. Somehow, the fact that she knew it made it okay.
The Bear and the Nightingale is whimsical, haunting, and twisted like any good fairytale. A blend of many stories known, loved, and feared in Russia still today, The Bear and the Nightingale is one epic journey that spans years. From the house-spirits, to the gods of the elements, to the celebrated figures of Baba Yaga and the Firebird, everything that is inherently Russian is present and accounted for. I loved that the focus was not on these known figures, but on the everyday ones that live in the household and receive offerings, that protect the hearth and livelihood of the family.
This is a love story. Not in the traditional sense, but one of love for the land, for heritage, for culture, and in beings that others believe are myth. There’s not romance in the usual fashion, but there is a hint.
The atmosphere and world building is strong. You’ll become fully immersed in the countryside, the power of the forest and all the magical beings that inhabit it.
I loved Vasya. She’s known for being unattractive, frog-like, and weird, but her spirit makes her beautiful. She’s fierce, determined, sure of herself. She believes when others are filled with doubts. She throws herself into danger, she risks her life, she loves hard and barters for her people. She’s small, but she’s crafty and wild and bold. She does what everyone else in the story wouldn’t dare and that’s what makes her compelling.
On a more somber note, there is some conversion that goes on in the story. Religious crusade of a sort that makes the reader question what happens when people story believing in their folklore, in their old gods, and all the stories that come with them. There’s something heartbreaking and sobering about this war within the people.
The pacing may be slow for some, but it builds as it goes and Vasya becomes more adventurous.
If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this: