Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Fantasy & Magic, Retelling
Amazon // The Book Depository
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, 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.
one of the few books i remember owning in my childhood was this giant book of illustrated fairytales. i read each story at least twenty times, but the one i read the most was the tale of vasilisa the beautiful. after i moved, i lost the book, but the story of vasilisa the beautiful always just kind of stuck by me.* maybe because it was because it was the first story i read about a little girl who triumphed and who found her own haven. maybe because it was enchanting in its russian roots–a fairy tale i hadn’t seen in a disney movie first. maybe because it scared me a little and that made it all the more captivating.
the bear and the nightingale brings back all those memories of reading vasilisa the beautiful and how much i adored the fairy tale. written in that oh-so nostalgic way that all fairytales are, this debut novel is immersed in whimsy, magic, and–like all the old stories–that vein of wickedness that makes the story so much more thrilling. arden evokes the naturally captivating atmosphere of winter forests and Russian palaces and weaves it into a setting that all at once enchanted and chilled me. though a fairy tale at its core, the story touched upon complex themes of old versus new and the struggle between faith and fear. the villagers struggle to cling to their old faith in the face of charisma and fear–in a way, vasya and her stepmother anna emobdy this struggle.
vasya was wild, fierce, and above all determined. the youngest of four children, she is spoiled by her siblings and her father and finds joy in running through the forest and meeting the creatures that only she can see and understand. she is the typical fairytale heroine. kind and loving, and willing to do whatever it takes to keep her family safe–even, as always, her “evil” stepmother. anna, however, is not so much evil as she is pitiful. fraught by fear her entire life by the creatures that only she and vasya can see, anna chooses to obsess over a religion and a savior to ward off these demons whereas vasya befriends and nurtures them. in the end, the largest difference is that anna waits for someone to save her, and vasya depends on her own strength.
my biggest complaint however, was the pacing. a majority of the novel is spent on setting up the story–we see vasilisa growing up, her siblings leaving her one by one. we see obsession and fear start to overtake the village. it’s only at about the half point where things started to truly get interesting, and even then the pacing was a little slow. and frankly, the end i felt was a bit anticlimactic at random–it ended so quickly that i had barely realized that it was over.
in spite of that, the bear and the nightingale is a beautiful retelling with absolutely lyrical writing and that age-old fairytale wonder.
*I SPENT THIRTY MINUTES LOOKING FOR THIS BOOK and i found it