In Bear and the Nightingale, we open with the growing family of Pyotr Vladmirovich listening to the tale of Frost-Karachun, the death-god, now known as Morozko, the winter king. Marina, Pyotr’s beautiful wife, is pregnant again, and this time will be her last, for the girl Vasilia will be born and bring great joy and great calamity to this family of the Northern Rus’ wild.
Vasilia loves to be free, running through the forest and talking to the sprites. She leaves bread for their household spirits and convinces the hungry river-sprite not to eat her people. Her family, Pyotr and her four siblings, both love and fear for her, not realizing how much she knows. This sends Pyotr to take a new bride from the urban Moscow for both Vasya’s good and to strengthen family ties to the royal family.
New bride Anna is different like Vasya, but does not understand or accept in the same way. Moscow has fully embraced its Christian tenets, while the wild folk still believe in the old ways as well as the new. While Anna can see the spirits, she fears they are demonic, and thinks her unruly stepdaughter is evil with them. As Anna and her new priest Konstantin’s influence begins to grow, the old ways are slowly dropped, leaving Vasya alone and feared even more.
But with this change comes the realization of great horror. Crops are failing, winter is lasting longer and longer, and only Vasilia knows how to stop it. Can she save her people from themselves, meeting a destiny that the Winter King has laid out for her?
What works so well
First of all, the mood of this book is its driving force. This is a curl in your armchair, drinking whiskey-laced tea by a roaring fire kind of tale in which your arm hairs will still rise at parts. Winter is inextricably twined with the narrative, from Vasilia’s birth to Frost King’s plight. You will feel the hunger of the villagers, the bone chill even being next to a fire. Here, atmosphere is key. Arden does a spectacular job of creating it.
Second, this book is more than another fantasy novel, it is a tour de force in Russian mythology and folklore. Arden flawlessly combines the history of medieval Russia, its blossoming as a Christian nation, and the strongholds of the old ways into one narrative of opposing forces where coexistence is possible. I find that Bear and the Nightingale did this much better than the long-hoped for Last Days of Magic, whose narrative was too heavy-handed and biased. Here, we have a couple of misguided and possessed individuals instead of an entirely evil institution.
Peripherally related to point two is how authentic this narrative comes off as. The reader feels like they are living in the deep freeze of Russian wilderness, with its everyday struggle to survive and close family ties that result. Arden includes a glossary of terms in the back, and I used it to the fullest, but this did not detract but rather added to the experience. Here is a new addition to Russian canon.
What works slightly less well
The pacing was, shall we say, wonky. I separated the portions of this book into two parts: Pre-Konstantin and during Konstantin, as in when the priest showed up to Vasya’s village and began to wreak Christian havoc. The first half of the book is slow and languorous, showing Pyotr’s family, Vasya’s upbringing, and the trials of winter in a slow and richly complex manner. Once Konstantin arrives, however, the pace speeds into a mad dash to the finish line, a build up of pressure that leads to an explosive and bittersweet climax. It almost felt like reading two different books. I loved both sections, and didn’t mind either type of pace, but I wish it was consistent.
In a similar vein, the different perspectives were inconsistent, sometimes hard to follow from one person to the next. Split narratives are hard and often unnecessary, and while I liked how it added to characterization, sometimes I could not follow.
A bewitching, beguiling winter bouquet that sinks you deep into a whole new world. It is not often I am this happy that what I thought was a standalone is actually going to be a trilogy. I can’t wait for more folklore, kickass female leads, and medieval Russian politicking! Four waves but with so much potential for more. Order it on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or other retailers.
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