The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
Cover Artist: Robert Hunt
Review by Mel Jacob
Del Rey Hardcover / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9781101885932
Date: 10 January 2017 List Price $27.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden provides a fascinating tale of Old Russia when it was still the Rus and ruled by the Khan. The novel overflows with folktales, family, and nature spirits as the people struggle to survive against the unforgiving forces of nature.
Marina, the wife of a Russian nobleman, Pyotr Vladimirovich, is determined to have one last child, a girl. After Vasilisa is born, her mother soon dies and leaves her in the care of Dunya, the teller of tales, nursemaid, and servant. Dunya clings to old ways and honors the household guardians. One tale concerns the Frost God and his wives.
The Russian winters are hard and not all survive them. The bear is an avatar for the Winter King at his harshest. When starvation kills, bears become ravenous, and the dead walk. His brother the Frost King, is milder and more villagers survive. Dunya tells tales of both kings. In one, beautiful maidens taken by the Frost King are sent home with riches only later to be taken to stay with him, that is, to die. Many of the tales are sad.
As Vasilisa grows, she sees the household spirits and those of nature. Her interactions with these creatures are fascinating and she makes friends with most of them. Many of the nature spirits are mischievous but are neither good nor bad.
When Pyotr travels to Moscow to seek a new wife and to cement alliances, he encounters a stranger who gives him a beautiful necklace for his daughter Vasilisa. When Pyotr returns home with a new wife, he gives Dunya the necklace to hold for Vasilisa until she grows up. Anna, the new wife, is religious and sees the household spirits as demons and demands they be banished.
Soon an ambitious priest, exiled from Moscow, arrives and joins the family. He focuses mainly on painting icons but is rigid and unforgiving in his beliefs. He sides with Anna about the household spirits. Like others, he is fascinated by Vasilisa and conceives a passion he knows is wrong. His solution is to have her imprisoned in a convent. The priest is a rigid, stereotypical proud man who has lost his faith.
The Winter King and the Frost King both want Vasilisa and her strange abilities. It appears that choosing either will mean her death, so Dunya delays giving the necklace to Vasilisa. Yet, ultimately the girl must choose.
Arden paints a bleak picture of winter in Northern Russia and the hardships faced by the peasants. The rich historical background and insights into daily life provide added interest for readers. Her prose is evocative and beautiful. The variations in Russian names are minimized but may confuse some. Sacrifices of various types are demanded of almost all. The love of family lightens the harshness somewhat.