What a charming book! Without giving too much away about the plot, I want to tell you why I loved The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I listened to the audiobook version, which was narrated by Kathleen Gati.
The central character is Vasilisa Petrovna, a Russian girl on the cusp of adulthood with burgeoning magical abilities, including the ability to See household spirits. She is the beloved youngest child of a country lord–a title which carries little comfort in medieval Russia–until he marries anew. In sweeps a cruel, if not wicked step-mother who is determined to uproot the old traditions just when the village needs them the most.
While the world Arden builds is rich, the strength of her story is in the characters. Vasilisa is headstrong and endearing as she struggles against forces larger than herself. I loved her for her irrepressible strength and half-wild nature.
Equally as much as I loved Vasilisa, I despised and pitied her enemies. In particular, Konstantin Nikonovich, a charismatic monk with a talent for painting icons, who feels like an exile in Vasilisa’s small town. He steers the people away from their traditional beliefs, starving the household spirits of strength.
In fact, humans weren’t the only key characters of this story. We also meet Morozko, a frost/death demon, who is as mysterious as he is compelling, and his cruel brother Medved, the titular bear.
At the heart of this book is tensions between heathen traditions of honoring household spirits and Christian faith, and the confining nature of women’s expected behavior in this time period.
It is a time of change in Russia, when Slavic paganism is retreating in the face of Christianity. Though the bells of Christiandom toll through Rus, the village of Lesnaya Zemlya is removed enough from the rest of civilization to maintain a spiritual balance. Its people honor the household spirits even as they pray to a Christian God. This is all to the horror of certain characters, of course. In particular, the monk Konstantin works to expel the old ways, threatening brimstone and damnation. His influence weakens the lovable Domovoys and Banniks who help the village, while Vasilisa, with her Sight, is forced to watch their decline.
And indeed, Vasilisa’s place in her village, and her society at large, comes under growing pressure as she nears adulthood. Arden is unblinking in her portrayal here; women’s place in medieval Russia is either in the home or in the convent. There is no place between, no place for a girl such as Vasilisa. Arden’s treatment of this tension is both realistic and fantastic, and a key reason why I appreciated this book so much.
There is plenty of mystery in the story, partly due to the nature of building such a world, but also intentionally embedded. Among others mysteries, Vasilisa’s heritage as a witch is not completely explained and the nature of the fight between the Medved and Morozko remains an enigma. Nevertheless, the ending resolved the story so well that I would have felt satisfied without the two sequels. That, I think, is a testament of Arden’s storytelling ability.
The bottom line
I can confidently say this book is in my top reads for the year. The writing sparkles, the plot is compelling and the characters stick with you long after you finish reading. The word I keep coming back to for this book is: Charming. Just charming!
If you’re interested in the audiobook, I’m happy to report that the narration was solid. Although she did little to give characters individual voices, Kathleen Gati brought an authentic Russian flavor to the dialog. Also, there was something so soothing about her voice. Perhaps it was a mix of the folktale elements of this story, but I had the calming sensation of being read to by a beloved relative.
The content is suitable for teenagers and adults. Pick it up today! I doubt you’ll be disappointed.