The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Publisher - Del Ray
Price - £8.99 paperback
Published - Out Now
A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, wilful girl, to the chagrin of her family.
But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.
Everyone respects the countryside; it gives us natural beauty, fresh air and a sense of peace. But if you go off the beaten track and take a wrong turning or the weather changes unexpectedly the exact same place can appear menacing, haunting and not happy at your intrusion. Tales of what lurks outside our towns and villages are universal and in this gorgeous story Elizabeth Arden gives a version of the stories that remind us of what lurks in the Russian wilderness. A kaleidoscope of nature, spirits and magical elements combined to give me a very satisfying lead.
I know very little Russian folklore, so this tale is unusually both familiar and strange to me. Vasya is born to a beautiful and potentially magical mother who dies shortly after childbirth. Left to be reared by her father Pyotr who rules the local lands and village she becomes the family rebel. Less interested in staying at home and instead loves to wander through the fields and forests outside the village where she can talk and play with the domovoi – spirits of hearths, forests and lakes. However, when her father takes on a new wife who also sees the spirits but in her eyes they’re devils; over the following years we will see Vasya torn between two worlds of humans and magic in a game between two powerful elemental forces of winter.
So, we have a fairy-tale but very similar to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted with a hugely expanded plot. Arden brings this world to life be it the quaint traditions of the countryside to the internal politics of the court of the Tsar Ivan into which Pyotr unwittingly receives a new wife. The natural spirit world is contradicted with the orthodox Christian faith and one cannot live alongside the other for much longer. Rather than in depth examination of life in Russia you’re painted in a series of episodes as Vasya grows up snapshots of key moments in her life. The joy of her finding she has such talents to the pain of an evil stepmother who will not accept Vasya is not tainted by the devil.
While Vasya is joy and wants to help her family she finds two key human opponents her stepmother who while she sees the same world can only see it as a threat to her sanity and soul. But most impressive is the complex relationship that develops between Vasya and Konstantin an ambitious priest the Tsar has decided would be better placed out in the countryside. Konstantin finds Vasya as she grows fascinating - a disturbing quasi friendship develops but with a darker subtext aided by a shadow that whispers how Konstantin is so close to the power he really seeks. Which way will he ultimately turn?
The story is relaxed we spend it watching Vasya have a series of interlocking adventures and slowly see her role in what looks to be a more elemental battle that threatens the whole world. I found it a story I could really relax into and get to know the world. I think if you were to look for a crisper narrative this isn’t the story for you but for me this gave a lot of depth and it’s very enchanting as the bigger picture gets revealed. Arden paints scenes of winter and summer with lots of little stories that it hums with magic.
A lovely read that offers adventures, magic and a picture of a world you don’t see very often. If you enjoy folklore and how it fits with our world. While it gives an ending for this adventure there are future instalments to come. I think this is the start of a series I think many of you will love.