Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Bear and the Nightingale

Vasilisa grew up at the edge of the Russian wilderness where the weather is harsh and cold for most of the year. Winters are particularly cruel, but she has many pleasant memories of her siblings and her nurse by the fire telling fairy tales to pass the time. Since her mother died in childbirth, her father goes to Moscow to present his sons to royalty and find a new wife. He brings home Anna, a young woman from a royal family who is also notorious for seeing demons everywhere. She and Vasilisa butt heads immediately because Vasya sees creatures as well, but knows they are house spirits or domovoi that make their lives easier in exchange for tribute. The arrival of a fiery priest Kostantin creates fear of hell and damnation in her town and causes other people to shun their domovoi, which causes further misfortune and weakens them to the attack of sinister forces.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a wonderful merging of Russian society as it adapts to Christianity and Russian folklore. The very beginning has Vasya's nurse Danya telling her fairy tales of the cruel winter and how humility and kindness get you further than selfishness. I wasn't quite drawn in until Vasya sees and interacts with the domovoi in her house. The people that live near the Russian wilderness, away from big cities, believe in Christianity and go to church, but also pay tribute to their house spirits or domovoi more out of habit than anything. Unbeknowst to most of them, these gifts of food and drink help them immensely by extending the use of resources and keeping crops and cattle healthy. Once these creatures are shunned due to the fire and brimstone antics of Father Konstantin striking fear into the villagers' hearts. Now, the domovoi have weakened, leaving the humans with dwindling resources and mounting fear, unaware of the supernatural danger their spirits protect them from.

Everyone knew Vasilisa was different right from birth. As she grew up, she realized she could see and understand the domovoi and other creatures right out of her nurse's fairy tales. Over time, she learns to care for and respect them. Through her friendship and tribute, they respect her in return and teach her how to move silently through the forest and how to talk to horses. As she grows into womanhood, Vasya keeps her sweet nature entwined with a wildness and confidence that others find troubling. Vasya is an amazing character that does what she can, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Her perseverence proves to be unshakeable even in the face of the disapproval of her whole town. Unfortunately, her only future paths are in the prison of either marriage or a convent. Her access to the supernatural world helps her break out of her social norms. The supernatural forces she faces are out of her realm of reality and understanding, but it doesnt stop her from fighting for her family and her town anyway.

The only other person with any knowledge at all that fairy tale creatures are real is Anna, Vasya's stepmother. She fits into the evil stepmother trope well, but she's more fleshed out than that. Everyone around her assumes she's crazy because she sees what she assumes are demons everywhere. She's basically Vasilisa, but intent on ignoring the creatures instead of getting to know them. Her existence throughout life is tortured because no matter how devout she is or how hard she prays, these demons plague her. Instead of trying to educate Vasya, Anna simply abuses her whenever Vasya acknowledges the domovoi. I had sympathy for her because she doesn't understand her situation and feels constantly attacked. However, she lost my sympathy when she decided to abuse her stepdaughter and taking everything she can away from her. This character shows how Vasya could have been had her temperament or upbringing or attitude been different.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a wonderful book that I couldn't put down. The fairy tale elements are woven in throughout, contrasting with the real world woes of the townspeople. Vasya interacts with many figures from Russian fairy tales using her knowledge of their tales and her generous nature. It takes a little while to hold my interest, but once it does, it doesn't let go. Katherine Arden is amazing and I would love to read whatever she writes next. This book is highly recommended to fans of Neil Gaiman or fairy tale literature.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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