The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Reviewed by Annabel

There is something about stories based upon Russian fairy tales that so appeals. Some authors, as Eowyn Ivey did with her divine debut, The Snow Child, have translated them to another time and place. Arden stays in Medieval Russia for her story which contains many elements of the classic Russian fairy tale Father Frost. (which can be found in Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book, and Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales).

The Bear and the Nightingale has all the prerequisites needed for a fairy tale. A father, widowed in childbirth of a daughter, a scheming, jealous and mad stepmother who will do anything to get rid of her stepdaughter, the independent and spirited daughter – Vasila – who can see and talk to the household and forest sprites, and the loving grandmother who keeps secret the jewelled talisman brought by the Frost King, Morozko, for her.

Vasilisa – Vasya, had met the Frost King in the forest one day as a young girl, although she never knew who he was. As usual, Vasya had run off from the kitchen after pinching honeycakes, but unusually, she got lost in the trees. Then she spotted a man asleep under a big old oak she hadn’t seen before:

Vasya reached out to shake him awake but thought better of it. Instead, she said “Grandfather, wake up! There will be snow before moonrise. Wake up!”

The man eventually rises:

The child recoiled. One side of his face was fair, in a rough-hewn way. One eye was gray. But the other eye was missing, the socket sewn shut, and that side of his face a mass of bluish scars.

The strange man talks, encouraging her to take his hand, when a horse and rider enter the clearing:

The horse was white and strong; when her rider slid to the ground, Vasya saw that he was slender and bold-boned, the skin drawn tight over cheek and throat. He wore a rich robe of heavy fur and his eyes gleamed blue.
“What is this?” he said.
The ragged man cringed. “No concern of yours,” he said. “She came to me – she is mine.”The newcomer turned a clear, cold look on him. His voice filled the clearing. “Is she? Sleep, Medved, for it is winter.”

He addresses Vasya, who stands firm, then bolts.

The stranger made no attempt to follow. But he did turn to his horse when the mare came up beside him. The two exchanged a long look.
“He is getting stronger,” said the man.

This encounter with the Frost King and his sleeping enemy, early in the narrative, confirms that Vasya had inherited her mother’s (and grandmother’s) second sight, and allows Arden to build up the suspense as the novel progresses that there will be a battle over Vasya one day.

As if this wasn’t a heady enough mixture, already, Arden sets the traditional story against the coming of Christianity from the city into the provinces. The message is brought by Konstantin, a young icon-painting priest with blazing eyes,  who uses words of fire and brimstone to bring fear to his flock to get them to abandon the old ways.

He wants to stop them leaving offerings for the sprites who keep their houses, crops and animals safe. Without the offerings, the sprites will grow weak and perish. Not everyone can see these sprites (who are not dissimilar to Rowling’s house elves), but they believed in them all the same. Vasya can see them, and talk to them. She sees them getting weaker, and does her best to keep them going.

Vasya’s stepmother, Anna, can also see the sprites. She, however, believes that they are devils which must be driven out, and throws herself into the sanctuary of the church. She does nothing to discourage locals from thinking that Vasya is a witch, and seeks to get her married off and far away from home to protect herself from going mad.

The two worlds will collide when the Frost King’s brother, Medved the Bear – aka the Devil – wakes up and starts causing havoc. Konstantin’s faith will be tried and Vasya will be the lynchpin in this battle between good and evil.

This is a supremely colourful tale that combines high fantasy with family dynamics and the biting cold of the Russian winter. It is beautifully realised by debut author Arden. Her descriptions of the countryside and forest through the seasons and the hard work for all living there grounded the text in real life which, set against the otherworldliness of the sprites, made this an enchanting and compelling story. I adored it.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and wishes she could experience a Russian winter – well, just for a little while.

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey/Ebury, 2017). 978-1785031045, 336pp., hardback.

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