Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey (Random House), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Adult, Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: February 9 2017
Finished: February 22, 2017

From the inside cover:

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 honour the spirits of the 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 honouring 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 he 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.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical debut novel from a gifted and gorgeous voice. It spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent.

I'm a sucker for Russian-inspired literature, so there was no question as to whether I would read this. The hype surrounding it made me both slightly piqued and skeptical, but I can assure you the hype is completely deserved.

Pyotr Vladimirovich is a rural lord in a world that resembles medieval Russia. Caught between old and new, Pyotr's family and the other residents in the village all attend church, but still perform the old pagan rites to appease the gods and protect their livelihood. Pyotr's wife Marina is known to have a bit of the supernatural about her, and as she lays dying, makes her husband promise to protect newborn Vasilisa since the child is destined to be important. Vasya grows up wild and free-spirited, unbound by convention or religion, with an impressive set of abilities. While everyone else in her village merely believe in the household spirits, Vasya can actually see and communicate with them. Years later Pyotr reluctantly remarries Anna Ivanova, a woman who can see the spirits and demons like Vasilisa, but who screams at the sight of them, so people think her mad. The only place Anna is free from the visions is in church, so she throws herself into religion, forbidding service to the household spirits. Years later when Konstantin Nikonovich arrives as the new priest for the area, he creates and spreads such fear in the populace that the household spirits can no longer protect the area from the clutches of Medved, the brother of Death, who after takes the form of a bear. Fires rage. The dead walk. And Vasya must summon her courage to help save her family and herself.

This novel is simply stunning. The writing is lyrical and reads like a traditional fairy tale in terms of structure, but it's unique enough to truly stand out amongst traditional tales and even modern retellings. The world-building here is astonishing. The author does and amazing job of conveying this  Russian winter wonder in the midst of a change between the old and new; and how Vasilisa, as a symbol of this old life, is a threat to those trying to control others using the new. The characters are wonderfully imagined: Vasya is spunky and smart despite only being fourteen or fifteen, her siblings are nicely developed and likeable despite some of them not appearing often, and Anna Ivanova is delightfully flawed to the point where you feel sorry for her even though she does act as an antagonist. Konstantin was a particularly interesting addition, and I loved how twisted his obsession with Vasya is, and though the whole "devout religious figure in lust with the fiery female" isn't a new cliche by any stretch of the imagination, it is both sickening yet compelling in this context.

The exploration into the frost demon and the bear doesn't happen until closer to the end of the book, and I wished there had been more time devoted to these supernatural aspects, not because the explanation was lacking, but purely because I wanted to see more of them. I loved the addition of the vazila and the talking horses because, c'mon, talking horses. The Russian names and naming conventions (oh god, the diminutives!) take some getting used to if you're not familiar with it, younger readers might not realize the various names are all attributed to the same character. The book delves into so much Russian folklore and culture, anyone familiar with it will surely appreciate the author's attention to detail.

This book demands to be read, by everyone who savours the written word, who soaks up folklore and myth, who simply adores a good story. I just discovered that there are sequel books forthcoming, and I will be waiting impatiently for them.

Thoughts on the cover:
Mysterious and beautiful, yet slightly eerie, which is a good fit for the mood of the book as a whole.

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