The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is the first book in the Winternight Trilogy.
It was highly recommended by so many people, and it was definitely NOT overhyped.
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts from 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 of 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.
It’s no secret that I love stories pertaining to Russia, but this one felt completely unique. From what I gather based on the rulers, it takes place sometime in the 14th century — a bit earlier than my usual reading material. There’s a strong fairy tale feeling to the story, with the emphasis on various spirits in and around the household. Even though it takes place in what is now known as Russia, back then it was called Rus’ and wasn’t centralized. The descriptions of long, brutal winters made me feel as though I was there in the story ... and FREEZING.
The plot was great, but the characters were as well. Vasilisa is the main character (obviously), and I loved her! She’s not your typical heroine. She is often described as not being beautiful, which only served to endear her to me.
“Vasilisa Petrovna was an ugly little girl: skinny as a reed-stem with long-fingered hands and enormous feet. Her eyes and mouth were too big for the rest of her. Olga called her frog, and thought nothing of it.”
She’s not your typical girl of that era — girls were expected to be quiet and obedient, looking forward to a good marriage and children. The only prospects for women at the time were marriage or going to a convent. Vasilisa wanted none of those things, and she came from a line of women with gifts. This didn’t necessarily endear her to the villagers.
“I was born for a cage, after all: convent or house, what else is there?”
As Vasilisa grows older, she continues to buck gender roles. She is not feminine, and is more of a tomboy. She speaks her mind, doesn’t have any problem questioning authority, refuses to blindly believe everything the church or local priest teaches, and learns to ride bareback when that isn’t an accepted activity.
“If she’d been a boy, he’d have been applauding that display of horsemanship."
Pyotr (Vasilisa’s father), and her brothers are protective of her, especially her closest sibling, Alyosha. He’s only a few years older, and is very close with her. Pyotr means well in trying to find a stepmother for Vasilisa, but his new marriage isn’t exactly what he expects. Anna is devoutly Christian, and refuses to let her family or the villagers observe their old ways.
Father Konstantin wasn’t my favorite character, but he was intriguing. He really believes that what he is doing is right, but to me, he symbolizes the main issues with the church. He worked to keep people afraid and reliant on him as a source of guidance, convinced that he knew best and spoke with God’s voice. Vasilisa was the only one to question him, which he found infuriating.
Morozko is the other main character — the blue-eyed winter demon. He plays a big role in the story, and he’s definitely a fearsome guy. I couldn’t help but love him though — he’s a good foil for Vasilisa, who is misunderstood by all those around her. While the villagers view her as a witch, Morozko doesn’t, and neither do the household spirits.
I’m always game for a great fairy tale retelling, and this one is one of the best that I’ve ever read. Even though I’ve never heard this particular fairy tale before, I loved every second of reading it. It had such well-rounded characters, a fascinating plot, and perfect pacing. I don’t feel like anything I could say would do justice to this story, so just read it and don’t wait as long as I did!
People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn't an upper limit.
Gasp Factor: 10
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars