I don’t really know why I’m surprised, but NetGalley is learning my tastes. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in the back end of that site, there was a note in my profile that said, “Loves fairy tales!” Or maybe there’s just stats on what books I request. Either way, since I enjoyed Uprooted last year, someone thought I would enjoy The Bear and the Nightingale this year. Well, they weren’t wrong. Maybe I should be more creeped out by the prospect of computers learning more about me… except that it keeps providing me with excellent books. What’s not to like about that?
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles nearer, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
What I was expecting from the book and what this book actually provided turned out to be two separate things. But in the end, that wasn’t a bad thing. I really liked this book—possibly better than I would have liked the book I thought I was going to read. Most of those foiled expectations seem to come from the fact that I was expecting a similar story structure to Uprooted. But while the two stories probably do share a subgenre—fairy tale retellings, perhaps—the way in which those fairy tales are retold is vastly different.
To begin, this book moved a little slower than I expected. I tend to think of books as either action-driven—by which I mean that the plot tends to move forward by virtue of the characters taking various actions—or character-driven. The latter is usually more, let’s say, cerebral. In general you spend a little more time in the characters’ heads, learning who they are and what they want. They might take actions, which will certainly move the plot forward, but the bulk of the story centers around character. The Bear and the Nightingale felt more character-driven to me than Uprooted, which likely accounts for the perceived slow pace.
Now, don’t start thinking that all of that means I didn’t like the book. I’ve already mentioned that I did, and despite my personal issues with its pacing, this book delivers a fantastic story. In case it’s not obvious, I’m a huge fan of fairy tales, and the various ways authors can manipulate them into something new. I’m not overly familiar with Russian fairy tales, but I enjoyed getting to know this particular tale through the lens of this book. Perhaps one of the best things Katherine Arden does in this book was making it accessible to those unfamiliar with the cultural genre. Almost immediately after I was done, I went to see what sort of books on Russian fairy tales Amazon had to offer, which just shows how well the author draws the reader into the world.
Another thing that really draws the reader into this book was the weather, and the permeating cold of the Russian winter. Everyone in the book is cold, almost all the time, and even in the brief warmer seasons, there is always the looming reminder that it won’t stay that way for long. And while Winter himself is a character in this book, it’s more than that. In a very real way, Winter is this book. Katherine Arden then combines that cold with the almost palpable fear of her characters—which also makes use of the more character-driven, inside-their-heads sort of storytelling. All in all, it makes for a chilling read—in more ways than one.
The Bear and the Nightingale is written by Katherine Arden and will be published by Del Rey on January 10, 2017.