By Katherine Arden, A distinctive and enchanting book based in Russian folklore
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is one of those books that not everyone seems to know about, but everyone who’s read it seems to love it. It’s a novel based in Russian folk tales, history and culture, and it’s the first book of her Winternight trilogy. The second book is The Girl in the Tower (released Dec. 5, 2017) and the third, The Winter of the Witch, is coming out January 8th, 2019.
For me, this book was an obvious choice. I find Slavic culture fascinating. I love Russian words with their elongated vowels and the soft palatalized consonants, the charming diminutives used in their names, and the comforting low pitch of the language’s stresses. Plus, I’m a sucker for fairy-tale and folk-tale type stories. Of course, that also meant I had high expectations for this book.
Before we proceed, can we please talk about this book cover? I’m so perplexed by what happened here. This is another one of those situations where the U.K. versions just seem so vastly superior to the U.S. version.
The first one is the original beautiful cover, which was replaced by the second one, which is lovely as well, though not my favorite. And the last one is what’s available in U.S. which is not bad, but is certainly worse, right? The first one unfortunately is harder to find nowadays but the second one you can get pretty easily. Anyway, moving on.
The Bear and the Nightingale takes place in medieval Russia with Czars and Grand Princes, lords and boyars (feudal Russian aristocracy) roaming about the land.
Vasya and her family live in a small forested village, Lesnaya Zemlya, to the north of Moscow. Her father is a boyar, lord of their village as well as several surrounding villages. Her mother dies when she is young, but her mother believes that Vasya will grow up to be like her grandmother, a woman was said to have had witch-like powers and who was married to a Grand Prince.
Vasya grows up on tales and of the old Russian gods and folkloric creatures. However, when she is older, a young Christian priest (known as a Batyushka) comes to town to take over the ministry of the small village around the time that her father marries a woman who deeply fears the old beliefs. When Vasya’s powers begin to materialize, she realizes she will have to rely on them to protect their village, even as her beliefs clash with those around her.
The Bear in a Nightingale is a book firmly rooted in its cultural heritage. From the rusalka (a mermaid or water nymph-like creatures) to the domovoi (which are similar to house elves) and even upyrs (Russian vampires of lore) — the story is littered with the trappings of uniquely Russian folklore, lending it extra color, character and vibrancy.
And while Arden’s novel is unabashedly fantastical in nature, it also covers the much more grounded topic of the clash between pagan and Christian beliefs in feudal Russia. I actually think the book could have been marketed to a wider audience. It’s mostly sold as a “book based on folklore” (which it is), but even people who generally aren’t folklore-fantasy readers can enjoy and appreciate the cultural and historical aspects of this story.
In an interview, Arden describes some of the background research that shaped the story, “Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system, as well as the notion of a complicated magical world interacting so subtly with the real one.”
I found her exploration of Russian pagan and Christian beliefs fascinating and unique, and I’d go as far as to say that this book is worth reading for that alone.
“I think you should be careful, Batyushka, that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing.”
As for the other aspects of the novel, Arden’s writing has an even, soothing and easily moving cadence to it that makes the book particularly readable. She also has a subtle playfulness in her storytelling, small bits of humor, that give it some charm. The slightly dark and fanciful plot moves quickly, making for an imaginative and enchanting ride.
A Few (Minor) Gripes
It’s not a perfect novel, of course. The character development is a little flat and the resolution of the book kind of comes out of nowhere and wasn’t entirely satisfying. Some aspects of the story are not as well developed as I would have liked, leaving me with some big question marks as far as the world-building goes; for example, the concept of how the “binding” of the spirit works is fairly murky. And a lot of the boundaries of the powers of both Vasya and the various spirits is clouded in ambiguity.
But overall, the book is well worth a read. This is also Arden’s debut novel, so I’m inclined to give her some slack. I liked it enough that I plan on reading the next installments, but I hope they end up addressing some of my unanswered questions. I assume the subplots that are introduced but disappear (what’s up with Sasha?) will be revisited in later books, but I still wish they could’ve been wrapped up a bit neater here.
The book introduces a variety of elements of Slavic lore or paganism, referred to as chyerti, which are basically spirits or demons. For example, Morozko, otherwise known as Ded Moroz, is known in Russian folklore as a frost demon. But before the introduction of Christianity to Russia, demons did not have the negative connotations they do now. Under the later influence of the Russian Orthodoxy and Russian authors, he transformed into more of a “Father Christmas”-type character. Here, the character of Morozko is entwined with that of Chernobog, a Slavic deity of death.
Others that the book incorporates that haven’t been mentioned already include the vazila, a creature that looks like a man but has hooves and horns (not unlike the fawn in the Chronicles of Narnia), which is a spirit or demon that protects horses. And also the Leshy — forest spirits, known to be potentally dangerous but generally neutral towards humans depending on their attitudes toward the forest.
As a sidenote, there is a small glossary of words at the end of the book that I (sadly) did not discover until I had finished the book. I hope that you all will make better use of it than I did.
Read it or Skip it?
The Bear and the Nightingale is a pretty easy book to recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in folklore, Slavic mythology, Russian medieval culture or fairytale-type stories in general. It’s unique, fantastical and a relatively fast read. Even in the places where it comes up short, it doesn’t feel like wasted time.
If you liked Spinning Silver or Uprooted (both of which have a folklore-ish type feel), you should consider reading this, though this novel is a bit darker in tone than Novik’s works. Also, its frosty setting in northern Russia make it a good wintertime book, to be read with a cup of hot cider at hand.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Part OneChapters 1 - 5 Dunya, an older nurse, tells a Russian folktale to the children of Marina and Pyotr Vladimirovich. It's the story of a girl, Marfa, who is sent to marry Morozko, the Lord of Frost. When Morozko finds her, she is freezing, but insists she is not cold. Impressed by her courage, he gives her amazing gifts and sends her home. When another girl is sent to him but complains and is impertinent, she ends up freezing to death. Marina's mother was a witch who married the Grand Prince. The people distrusted her, so Marina, her only child, and was married off to Pyotr who was a boyar (a feudal lord) that lived far away. Pyotr is the lord of a village called Lesnaya Zemlya. Pyotr and Marina find out that Marina is pregnant with a girl. Marina believes the girl will have her grandmother's powers. They have another daughter, Olga, who is normal. Their boys are Alyosha, Aleksandr ("Sasha") and Nikolai ("Kolya"). The baby comes, and they name her Vasilisa (Vasya), but Marina dies in childbirth. When she is six, Vasya is mischevious, runs off and gets lost in the forest. She encounters an one-eyed man sleeping under an oak tree, Medved (the great Russian Bear), who offers to take her home. But Medved gets interrupted by a rider with a black cloak on a horse who stops him. Vasya runs away. Her brother Sasha finally finds her. At home, Sasha suggests to their father, Pyotr, that Vasya needs a mother to raise her properly. Pyotr knows he's right. Soon, Pyotr departs to Moscow to find a wife. Sasha and Kolya join him. In Moscow, they are met by the Grand Prince Ivan Krasnii Ivanovich, who was Marina's half-brother. Sasha also discovers the monastery and is attracted to their humble but pious lifestyle. He says he does not know what he is seeking, and they offer to let him stay as a Batyushka, a monk. When Sasha tells his father, Pyotr says he can only join if he 1) waits a year to reflect and b) understands that he will be giving up his inheritance. Sasha agrees. Chapters 6 - 11 Prince Ivan seeks counsel from Aleksei, the Metropolitan (Bishop) of Moscow. They decide to order two marriages for geopolitical reasons. First, his daughter, Anna Ivanova, will be married to Pyotr. Anna has some "madness" in her and he wants her far away, though Anna would prefer to join a convent. Secondly, his cousin Prince Vladimir will be married to Olga, Pyotr's daughter. This is to prevent him from securing a better marriage and getting a better claim to the throne relative to Ivan's own son, Dmitrii. In the Moscow market, there is a stranger who searches for the "witch's daughter". Pyotr sees the strange man. A few weeks later, the man appears again. He threatens to Kolya's life unless Pyotr gives a silver-blue jewel to Vasya. He demands that Vasya keep the jewel with her always. Pyotr hands off the jewel to Dunya to give to Vasya and relays the man's instructions. Dunya realizes it is a talisman and holds on to it. In her dreams, she is visited by a man who demands she give up the jewel. Dunya begs him to let her wait, saying Vasya is too young for sorcery. He relents, but warns her that she must give it to Vasya when she is grown. On the way back to Lesnaya Zemla, Anna Ivanova grows weak and tired. Anna's madness is that she sees devils everywhere, which is why she wanted to join a convent. Here in this place up north, her madness is even worse. She only feels safe at church. Kolya marries the daughter of a neighboring boyar (lord). Olga is soon to be wed as well, and will then be the Princess of Serpukhov. Back in Moscow, more politics are underway. The Grand Prince is sick and dying. Aleksei is worried about Dmitrii's safety and the succession of the throne. They are sending Dmitrii to the monastery until he comes of age. Aleksandr (Sasha) is to be his companion to look out for him, to be his ally and fight for him if necessary. The orders are given, and Sasha departs for the monastery. With Olga and Sasha gone, Vasya is left to her own devices and spends time with the domovoi in and around the house, which she can see though many others cannot. (Domovoi are household demons, similar to elfs and such. They are part of the old Russian beliefs and folktales. They are often protective spirits.) Domovoi require small offerings to keep them alive. Vasya talks to them and feeds them. Anna can also see them, but Anna considers them demons or some form of madness and believes they must be banished. Vasya sees the spirits everywhere, in the trees, water, rocks, etc. Vasya ignores them for the most part, but she likes Vazila. Vazila is the spirit of horses, lives in the stable and teaches Vasya things like how to talk to horses. Vasya keeps this a secret since she knows it is considered strange by others.
Part TwoChapters 12 - 13 Years pass and Vasya is now 14. Dmitrii is soon to ascend the throne. Anna has had a young daughter, Irina. In Moscow, Aleksei has heard rumors of a charismatic and attractive priest named Konstantin who paints beautiful icons that the people love. When the priest in Lesnaya Zemla passes away, Aleksei decides to send Konstantin Nikonovich to replace him. Off in the wilderness, he won't be a threat to Aleksei as a religious leader and it'll limit his power over the populace. Vasya is talking to a rusalka (water spirit) when Konstantin arrives. Vasya has stopped the rusalka from taking a village boy. The rusalka says that food has been scarce, so Vasya offers to nourish her by being her friend and bringing her flowers. It works. Konstantin is in need of paint colors, so Pyotr sends Vasya with him to go fetch plants in the forest. Konstantin is curious about Vasya but also finds her too bold and improper. Konstantin catches Anna sneaking by his window one night to go to church. She tells him of her struggle with madness. Konstantin feels excitement at the prospect of a battle against evil. At church, he tells people to stop believing in the old gods (the spirits). When Vasya plays a prank at church, Anna whips her arm until she bleeds. After that, Vasya is careful to avoid Anna. Soon, the spirits complain to Vasya that they are hungry because there have been no offerings lately. Vasya offers to bring them scraps. Winter arrives and it is brutual. Children in the village die of hunger. Vasya talks to the spirits who say that they have brought the frost because they are displeased. Vasya asks them to relent, but they merely warn her of the storm that is to come. The demon visits Dunya again about the jewel. This time he insists that in one year she must give Vasya the jewel. Chapters 14 - 17 That winter, Anna sees no demons and is at ease. Anna finds comfort in Konstantin's presence. Meanwhile, Konstantin finds himself drawn to Vasya's wildness, against his will. As a gift for bringing food during the winter, in the spring, the vazila offer to teach her to ride. She learns on Mysh, the horse. They ride out into the forest. There, she sees that a rusalka is about to kill Konstantin. She stops it, but when she tells Konstantin about it, he chastises her for her barbaric beliefs. Vasya dismisses him. Konstantin is frustrated by Vasya's defiance and by his own fascination with her. When he gives Vasya a cross to encourage her piety, Anna lashes out and insists that the cross is her her. Vasya easily gives it up. Pyotr sees that Dunya still has the jewel and confronts her about it. Dunya tells him the truth, that it is not just a jewel, but a tailsman from the Frost-King. She says that the best way to protect Vasya from him is to marry her off because in the stories he is only interested in wild maidens, not married women. In the forest, a rusalka warns Vasya that the Bear is awake. She also warns that the winter-king will help her, but not to trust him. And she tells her to beware the dead. Pyotr tells Vasya that she is to be married to Kyril Artamonovich. She is unhappy, but tries to believe Dunya when she says that it is for the best. When Kyril arrives, Vasya is impressed by his horse, Buran at least. Kyril himself is older and Vasya senses that his horse Buran is afraid of him. Alyosha does not like Kyril and think he's a bull of a man. Konstantin tries not to think about the fact that Vasya will be married in three days. He desires her and yet doesn't want to. When Vasya turns to him to ask him about what he should do, he feels so many emotions that he doesn't know what to do but strike her. She leaves. Alone in his house, a voice taunts him, but praises his loyalty. Konstantin believes it is the voice of the lord. Kyril finds her in the stable the next day and gropes her aggressively. Later, one of the horses gets frightened as Seryozha (Kolya's son) is riding him. Vasya humiliates Kyril by taking his horse from him so that she can chase down the mare. She saves Seryozha, but Kyril breaks off the engagement and rides home. Chapters 18 - 22 Anna and Konstantin suggest sending Vasya to a convent. Pyotr says he'll think about it. Brother Rodion shows up, who has been sent by Sasha. Sasha is now an advisor to the Grand Prince. They are considering rebelling against the Khan, which they think is in disarray, which would mean war. They want Pyotr's support. Meanwhile, strange things are afoot in the village. Something attacks a buck but doesn't take the meat. Other animals disappear. A girl from the village, Agafya, suggests to Konstantin that perhaps the strange occurences are because they have offended the old gods, but he rejects this notion. He hears the voice again, who demands his obedience. In church, Anna sees something and has a screaming fit. It's a shadowy presence. One night, the shadowy man shows up, and and Vasya realizes it's the same one-eyed man she saw in the forest many years ago. The other man (in a black cloak) shows up as well. Agafya starts seeing visions and eventually dies. The domovoi who protects their house is weak and so Vasya keeps trying to feed it to keep it alive, even offering her own blood which seems to give it more strength. Soon, Morozko the Frost-King visits Dunya in her dreams again. He tells her that he can save them all, but Vasya must have the jewel. He says that his brother's (the shadow) power grows, and that Vasya is in danger. The next morning, Dunya is delirious. Konstantin tries to help, but Vasya sends him away. She says that he tries to inspire devotion by teaching people to fear and she does not want that near Dunya. When Dunya awakes briefly, she explains that there are two of them. One with blue eyes (Morozko/Frost-King/the black cloak man/Death) and one with one eye (the shadow/Medved/the Bear). They are brothers (and enemies). Morozko wants Vasya to have the jewel, but the shadow does not. Dunya gives Vasya the jewel and says that it is a talisman, and that she should keep it hidden. The shadow shows up then, and it attacks the house by controlling a dead creature. The domovoi keeps it out of the house, but Vasya pursues it. She follows it to Konstantin's window. It tries to attack him, but Vasya uses the power of her blood to banish the shadow and the creature from the house. Vasya goes home to find Dunya who is dying. As she dies, the black cloaked figure (Morozko/Death) comes for Dunya, and Dunya smiles. However, then the shadow (Medved/the Bear) shows up and seizes Dunya, who then freezes in terror. Dunya dies and the figures depart. Vasya turns to Alyosha and tells him that the creature she banished last night was an upyr (Russian Vampire). She tells him they need to get rid of it by looking for disturbed graves and putting a stake through them. At the graveyard, they see Agafya's sleeping, but undead corpse. They stake her. A man, Nikolai Matfeevich, shows up, asking Pyotr for help. His village caught fire and since Pyotr is the boyar of these lands, he is asking for assistance. Pyotr agrees and brings Kolya. The voice commands Konstantin to have Vasya sent away. With Pyotr gone, Konstantin and Anna scheme to have her moved to the convent immediately. Vasya says that she cannot leave, as she is the one protecting the village. However, Anna believes she is inviting and encouraging the demons. Anna tells her the alternative is for Vasya to pick her some snowdrop flowers (knowing it is too cold and Vasya would die in the forest). But Vasya says ok and runs away into the forest. Soon she comes across the old oak tree she had seen many years ago. The shadowy one-eyed man (the Bear) is there as well, and as he sees her an upyr attacks her. She is rescued by the dark-cloaked Morozko riding a white mare. He tells her how to get home, but then Vasya collapses from tiredness and the cold.
Part ThreeChapters 23 - 28 Vasya awakes in a comfortable bed. Morozko says she can stay and rest and no time will have passed in her world. He says she is able to see this house because she has the power of "second sight." Morozko brings her a nightingale that he transforms into a white stallion (Solovey, which means "Nightingale") and a basket of snowdrop flowers. He heals her wounds. Back in the village, Konstantin tells his men to go find Vasya, but they are too scared of the forest. Then, the voice finally reveals itself to Konstantin. The voice tells him that he is the Bear (the shadow/one-eyed man). Konstantin realizes he is a demon, not the Lord as he had presumed. The Bear offers to bring Vasya back. In exchange, he wants another witch who has the sight, and he reminds Konstantin that one other person has seen the demons as well -- Anna. Vasya is still weak from having spent so long staying awake to watch over the house and feeding the domovoi with her blood. For the next few days, Vasya and Solovey go riding each day, getting used to each other while Vasya heals. Morozko explains that he saved her because she has the sight. And her blood is powerful. But mostly it is because she is brave, which he respects. Morozko teaches her about magic. He also explains that he is Death, and as such he is in charge of the order of things. He had to bind his brother, the Bear, to the forest because he was sowing disorder (war, plagues, fire, etc.). However, his brother has been getting stronger and will soon be free. By taking lives and using fear, the Bear can make himself stronger. Morozko is going to try to rebind him at midwinter, when he is strongest. Vasya offers to help, but he rejects it, saying that it is too dangerous. He offers her a bountiful dowry instead and says she should take it and get married instead. Vasya rejects the dowry, saying she only wants him to save her village, and leaves. Konstantin brings Anna to the edge of the forest and surrenders her to the shadow (the Bear) as she screams in terror. When Vasya gets back, it is as if no time has passed. Irina says her mother is missing, so Vasya goes to look for her at the church. She finds Konstantin who admits what happened. Vasya realizes that having Anna will make the Bear stronger and knows they need to stop. She gets Alyosha and they immediately heads out for the oak tree where she knows she can find him. When they get to the Bear's oak tree, they find the Bear. Then, Morozko shows up, but he reminds Vasya that he is not at full strength yet. Vasya then sees that other spirits (chyerti) are there as well, the river king, the rocks, the tree creatures, and so on. Slowly all the spirits take sides, some siding with Medved (the Bear) and others with Morozko (the Winter King) As the fight breaks out, Morozko sends Vasya and Alyosha away, saying that his sword won't have any effect here and telling them to save Anna. They ride off and find Anna in a pool of blood. She is dead. She has been killed by Dunya (who is now a upyr/vampire). Vasya cannot stand to see Dunya this way, and begs Morozko to take Dunya to her death. Morozko agrees and departs to take Dunya away, which leaves Vasya alone for the moment. The Bear turns to attack her, but suddenly the domovoi (protective elves) from all the houses in the village swarm upon him. The Bear is incredulous because they almost never leave their houses. Vasya then calls upon the rusalka, telling them to remember how she brought them flowers to sustain them. As the rusalka turn against the Bear, Vasya sees that her father is here. He has returned. (Morozko later explains that Pyotr is able to find them because the clearing is enchanted and led him there.) Pyotr shows up just in time to see the Bear attack Alyosha. Pyotr tells the Bear to leave, but the Bear demands Vasya's life. Pyotr says no, but offers up his own life in exchange. The Bear kills Pyotr. Vasya is about to attack the Bear, but Morozko, who has returned, stops her. He says that Pyotr's sacrifice has bound the bear once again. It is over, but Pyotr is dead. Vasya and Alyosha return to the village, which is full of whispers. All they know is that Vasya went into the forest and soon she came back out but Pyotr and Anna are both dead. Morozko cannot bring them back. Instead, Vasya asks Morozko for a favor -- to scare Konstantin into leaving the village. Morozko agrees, and they have a laugh scaring him off. Vasya announces to Alyosha that she will leave. The villagers will all think of her as a witch-woman now, and Alyosha needs to be their respectable lord and can't be associated with her. She bids her farewells, and she and Solovey ride off.
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