Wednesday, January 25, 2017

[Review] The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Rating: 4.5 stars

Version: ARC Paperback
Published: January 10th 2017

Goodreads Synopsis: 
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.

"You will ride to where earth meets sky. You will be born three times: once of illusions, once of flesh, and once of spirit. You will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, weep for a nightingale, and die by your own choosing." 

This was just to beautifully written to put down. It was truly a mystical fairy tale that captivated me, from the poetic language to the marvelous characters. Every time I saw a Russian word I understood I was happy (from years of taking it in high school).

Katherine Arden outdid herself, bringing together bits of old Russian folklore and combining all into one marvelous story. I felt as though I was in the forest with Vasya, immersed in the magic and mystery behind the woods.

Vasya herself was a amazing character to read. She's tasked with defending the forest and her village from destruction when her stepmother and a priest condemn the worship of the spirits of the forest and instead promote only Christianity. It's a little bit of a Disney tale, but Vasya definitely does not need saving. She's feisty, headstrong, and defiant, all the qualities perfect for a woman deemed a "witch" of the woods.

"All my life. I have been told 'go' and 'come.' I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man's servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me. Please. Please let me help me."

The other characters were also enjoyable to read, though only Anna and Konstantin were as strange and well-developed as Vasilisa. No one is painted as a true villain here (sans the real villain), as everyone is only doing what they believe is right.

I am particularly happy that there was no romance between Vasya and Father Konstantin - that would have been weird, given the events of the book. Their relationship is a strange, complex one, juxtaposed by their devotions, Vasya to the forest and Konstantin to God.

I only found fault in the beginning part of the novel, which seemed slow at the time compared to the rest of the book. The 2nd and 3rd parts picked up and this is where I found myself devouring every line.

The Bear and the Nightingale reinforced my love of Russian lore and the language into one book. I would definitely read other retellings.

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