I got this book from Thura when I left the Netherlands for Kenya. Which is ironic because this story is set in deep winter Russia and narrates about terrible winters and frosts without end. In Kenya, it was hot most of the time. It helps though, to read a book about ice in a hot country to cool down – I just imagined myself in this winter tale and I felt cold again. Now that I am back in the Netherlands and I am colder than ever, I’m missing the warmth of the country where I read this book. It seems fitting to write the review of this book in the cold here in the Netherlands. This book is the first part of a trilogy, but The Bear and the Nightingale stands on its own as well.
The setting of this book is some kind of fantastical medieval winter at the edge of the wilderness in Russia. It is set in a village and in this place, winter lasts most of the year. The households of the people are protected by spirits which are appeased by offerings of food. Also, people are devout Christians. There is a danger lurking in the forests which grows in the winter. This danger has the shape of Medved, or the Bear, who is the winter demon. He feeds off the fear of people to strengthen him to release himself from his shackles to spread death and destruction everywhere. Only the spirits can protect the people from Medved.
This story starts when Marina announces she is pregnant to her husband Pyotr in the midst of winter. Pyotr fears for her life because Marina has grown weak and might not survive the pregnancy. Marina tells Pyotr to take care of the daughter she is carrying because this one will carry the magical abilities inherent in her family connected to the spirits. And indeed, when Vasya is born Marina dies. Contrary to her calm sister Olga, Vasya grows up to be a spirited little girl always running around in the forest and with the horses. Her father and wet-nurse, Dunya, have great difficulty containing her and raising her as all girls are raised: to be a wife or for the convent. Vasya has too much a mind of her own to settle for those expectations.
A big part of her struggle in the book is to find a way to break from those expectations and to find a life of her own. Part of Vasya’s magical gifts is that she can see the household spirits. Examples of those are the Dvorovoi, who is the spirit of the stables and with whom she forms a friendship, and the Domovoy, who protects the household. However, they can only protect when they get offerings of food. There are good spirits who protect the household, but there are also more maleficent ones who kill.
Life goes on for years in peace until one day Pyotr decides he must find a new wife, so his children have a mother. That wife is Anna, a very pious but troubled woman. She sees the spirts as well, but thinks they are demons. From the moment of her arrival in Pyotr’s household, she and Vasya don’t see eye to eye. Things escalate when Konstantin, an ambitious priest, arrives. In the village of Pyotr’s family and starts a campaign against the spirits whom he believes to be demons. The tool he uses for that is fear where he blames the spirits for everything that goes wrong in the village. This is a dangerous exploit though because the people have been making offerings to the spirits for generations, which has kept them safe from Medved in the woods. Vasya is the only one who keeps offering because they are her friends. Because of the neglect of the villagers, the spirits get ill and weak and cannot protect the people anymore.
Vasya has a difficult role in this story and the village, and will also be an inspiration to all the women who have ever felt they cannot be themselves. I personally also really loved her because of that. Vasya is the only one who can help the spirits, however, it is also dangerous for her to show that power because of people’s fear. At one point she is even pursued as a witch. Also, as a woman, people expect her to stay at home and take care of the household and not to ride horses and run around in the woods. Vasya does not settle for the idea to either become a wife or nun. I will illustrate her thoughts by one of Vasya’s quotes:
“All my life,” she said, “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.”
This urge for freedom also explains her bond with horses which has a key role in the book. Horses are often associated with a sense of freedom, but they are also controlled by their owner. Maybe the horses and Vasya recognize each other’s struggle to be free, but also the fear where that freedom will take them. Can you be happy if your freedom alienates you from everyone who ever cared for you? Is there a way for Vasya to be free and happy? Eventually, she has to choose freedom to save everyone she ever cared for. I am really looking forward to part two, The Girl in the Tower, to see where this decision will take her.
The biggest critique I have on this book is on the writing style. It’s told like a story you’ve already heard a lot of times, and thus not everything is explained. This gives the book a feeling of familiarity like your grandmother or great friend is narrating it. However, it also makes the book at times difficult to follow because I did not get what was going on. It took me about two months before I got into the book and after that, I could not put it away anymore. The thing Arden did really well is the whole atmosphere of the book which is one of magic and a sense of potential danger lurking behind every corner or tree. The atmosphere is written so well that I found myself wishing with the whole household winter would end soon. It is interesting Katherine Arden managed to write such a dark winter atmosphere because she went to Hawaii for six months to write this book.
All things said, I really recommend this book to everyone who loves stories with a mysterious setting where you’re never sure what’s going to happen and where the danger will come from. Is the biggest danger the evil spirit that lurks in the woods or does the greatest danger come from the people in your own village who are closest to you? But besides a scary story, this is also a beautiful story about a woman who tries to find her own path in this world and succeeds. Maybe not to find ultimate happiness, but for freedom and sometimes that is even better.
Breaking the shackles award for breaking the bonds of people’s expectations
Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (New York, 2017)
Bella G. Bear