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The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
Del Rey, $27.00, 312pp
Published: January 2017

This is a debut book, potentially the first in a trilogy.  It is, according to the hype, a fantastic fairytale (sort of) set in old Russia.  The author doesn’t credit a particular fairytale, she says she just started adding stuff to the idea but it certainly has a distinctive fairytale atmosphere.

Vasilisa is a daughter of a nobleman who lives at the edge of the Russian wilderness.  Her mother was different; fairytale-type different.  It is hinted that she had abilities.  Her mother birthed two strong sons and an ordinary daughter.  But when she told her husband she needed a daughter like herself and her own mother, he attempted to talk her out of it.  It was terribly apparent that her health would be seriously endangered by another childbirth.  But she was adamant – the daughter was needed.  And, as feared, she did not survive Vasilisa’s birth.  Vasya, as she became known, was a wild child; constantly challenging her brothers and her nurse.  Ten years go by and her beloved father, Pyotr, begins to worry about his wild child; he decides he ought to take a wife.

The wife that he gets is known to be a mad woman but since she’s the daughter of his Prince, he has little choice in the matter.  The truth is that his new wife, Anna, isn’t so much mad as she is just like Vasya – able to see the little creatures of Russian myth who protect home and hearth; so long as they are properly fed and revered.  But unlike Vasya who sees and speaks familiarly to the unseen creatures, Anna is terrified by their presence.  To her relief, none of them appear in Christian churches so that is where she prefers to spend all her time.  Being cast out into the wilderness, poor Anna is lost until a priest is dispatched to the far region to minister to its inhabitants.  The priest, also an exile to the wilderness, is determined to save the villagers from their pagan ways, at any cost.  But it is Vasya who finally understands why it is the priest who will ultimately doom all the villagers; despite his best intentions.   Making her father and the other villagers understand their dire circumstances is, unfortunately, beyond her abilities.

There is also a Beauty-and-the-Beast element to the story when a frost-demon forces Vasya’s father into an understanding.  The demon, in a man’s form, gives a gem to Pyotr and instructs him to give it to his daughter.  Pyotr, cowardly for the first time in his life, cannot give it to his young daughter and gives it instead to her nurse instructing the nurse to give it to the child.  But the nurse hesitates to give such a royal gift to a child and is visited by a terrible dream from the frost-demon.  The nurse bargains with the demon that he wait until the child is grown and he agrees.  But the nurse waits almost too long; the frost-demon’s evil brother is getting stronger and the villagers’ beliefs are weakening in the face of brutal Christianity.  There is no one but Vasya to speak to and care for the spirits of home and hearth.  And, without the spirits, there is nothing to stand against the evil; except, perhaps, Vasya and Anna…

I like fractured fairytales and I don’t mind the occasional reimagining but Russian tales don’t really appeal to me.  I tried not to let that influence me; but I didn’t really care for this story.  The worldbuilding was excellent; I could taste the Russian influences and feel the frigid winter.  Vasya was an appealing character but Anna was rather one-dimensional.  I liked the portrayal of the frost-demon and despised the selfish priest but Pyotr and his sons were undefined for me.  The plot was a bit vague in places and I didn’t always see the characters’ motivations.  I think, though, if the gentle reader is enamored of Russian myths, this story will please.  ~~  Catherine Book

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