I am only the girl in the fairy tale, and he the wicked frost-demon – Katherine Arden.
What first drew me towards The Bear and the Nightingale was the stunning front cover. It is a piece of magic in itself with the old, traditional style of drawings which give only the slightest peek into what is to come. The burnt orange spine combined with the black background is intriguing to say the least and the small figurines and etchings of trees jumps out of the page.
When I saw Robin Hobb’s (The Farseer Trilogy) recommendation on the back, I was sold.
From the blurb, I was definitely intrigued. The Bear and the Nightingale is an adaptation of an old Russian fairy tale. I love fairy tales, and I especially love old ones that were told around fires and from grandmothers to grandchildren; the kind that have evil and monstrous characters which made children too scared to sleep in case the beasts haunted them in their nightmares – similar to Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm.
This is the tale of Vasya, the youngest born from her mother Marina who dies in childbirth as she was weak enough – apart from having a mother’s strength – whilst carrying her child. Vasya is not like other little girls who are good and perfect, doing whatever they are told to do, including marrying whoever they are betrothed to. Vasya likes to run. She likes to wander into the deep forest that surrounds her father’s village. She also sees things that almost nobody else can see, for the fairy tales are all true, but only to those who are blessed or cursed with the second vision.
At first, it took me a little while to get the feel of the book. I got confused by the Russian names and nicknames given to each character, and in turn some of the creatures we first meet. Another reason it took me a little while was because there is a lot of backstory to get through before seeing Vasya in her prime; we have to meet Anna Ivanovich who becomes Vasya’s stepmother just as we have to watch Vasya grow into a girl who isn’t babyish, but headstrong.
The Bear and the Nightingale is also told in a whimsical, fairy-like manner which takes a little getting used to but makes it all the more beautiful.
It wasn’t until around a third of the way through that I was unable to put the book down, when the demons were much clearer than the tendrils of fairy tale imagination which they had clung onto before.
It was also at this point that Vasya becomes a character that is very much her own. She is ruthless in her stubbornness and stubborn in her bravery. She believes in what is right and she believes that she is the only one who must save her village from the Bear who is about to be set free from his tree-cage. She hears her villagers call her a witch, and she sees the fear and repulsion in her stepmother’s eyes but still she carries on, no matter the cost to her own pride. And yet she is proud. She will not bow down to any man, whether he is a lord or a frost-demon – she remains true to herself and will only be treated as an equal, for she is the one who can ride the craziest of horses bareback, more than can be said for any man in the novel.
She plays the lead, as it is her story, to a gang of complex characters which range from good to evil and just to unjust, all the while thinking they are doing the right thing for them and those around them, even for the greater good as there are plenty of religious undertones laced throughout the story.
Two of the most complex characters in particular are Anna Ivanovna, daughter of the Great Prince of Muscovy, and Father Konstantin Nikonovich, a devout priest who’s entire world is to inflict the word of God to his followers, to make them fear him as well as love him. Both have their own demons, some of which come alive in the night; some of which are only alive within their souls. They both want to live a true life, both wanting to dedicate themselves to God and living by His word. Nevertheless, they make unjust, rash decisions out of manipulation and fear, inferring that Gods people do not do what is right; although, in their eyes it is what is the truth and so they continue to live by these actions. Hence, the complicated characteristics which Arden has built beautifully in a twisted and raw way.
The magic weaved throughout the novel is a mix of the descriptions, the setting and the entire tone of the novel. The wood and forest which surround the villages belonging to Pyotr Vladimirovich – Vasya’s father – come alive when the ice-cold wind blows its breath towards Vasya’s village. The trees tower and the leaves whistle in the wind; the lake has eyes beneath it whilst the vines have a naked lady living in their quarter. Magic and mystery is definitely what kept me reading The Bear and the Nightingale, as well as the thrill I’ve always felt when wandering between trees and getting lost in the woods, only to find something spectacular around the corner.
There is so much more to this book about maidens, princes and demons; if you find it difficult at first keep reading!
Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? Katherine Arden’s second novel comes out in January and I’m already excited!
Love, Faye xo