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.
While The Bear and the Nightingale takes readers on a slow journey, each detail and description helps the story come to life as we follow the growth and adventure of Vasilisa Petrovna, or Vasya. Raised in the woods of Russia, called Lesnaya Zemlya, Vasya lives with her four other siblings, widowed father, and nursemaid, Dunya, who starts the book off telling a story. Stories and fairy tales play a large role in the book, as Vasya discovers how intermingled her world is with these seemingly inconsequential stories and how much of an impact they will have on her family and village. The Bear and the Nightingale is very character-focused on Vasya, her impudence and wildness, and the lengths she would take to save the people she love, even as they doubt her.
When I say this book is slow, I mean that readers really have to be patient because throughout the book, the pace remains a sedate stroll. The mysteries surrounding the woods is very slowly revealed as Vasya explores and grows through time. The story starts before her birth and follows until she reaches young adulthood, developing into a not-pretty but certainly magnetic individual who is as charming as she is drawn to the wilderness – a wood sprite rather than a girl. Vasya enjoys foraging in the woods, making friends with creatures that no one else can see such as the rusalka, who feasts on the fear of men and domovoi, who protects their house. Her father, Pyotr, hopes to dispel her “wild ways” by marrying another woman. This stepmother from the city, Anna, can also see the creatures but instead of embracing them and understanding them like Vasya, she fears them. With the arrival of a devout preacher who believes that it is his life mission to teach the fear of god to the villagers who leave offerings to these fairy tale myths, Vasya’s village is turned upside-down with paralysis, fear, and wariness.
“‘Fairy tales are sweet on winter nights, nothing more.’”
I really enjoyed the incorporation of fairy-tales into the story, with both new and familiar characters. One thing I would have liked is a clearer revelation of some of these stories. So you hear of characters such as the firebird, or the nightingale, or the sea-king, but it’s not exactly fully explained. However, I didn’t really mind that and thought that the lack of explanation suited the flow of the story. The only fairy-tale readers really hone in on is the frostking, who has a large role in the conflict going on. While Vasya struggles to protect her family and village from the Bear that threatens to consume them, she also discovers more revelations about the creatures she’s seen all her life, and how she can perhaps save them.
“‘Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage – that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.’”
The small tidbits of family, history, and imagery surrounding the setting the book was really quite lovely. The author paints a very immersive world as we closely follow the timeline of Russian history, while they were thinking of rebelling against the Khans. Vasya’s family was so endearing to see, from the sweet Olga to the talented and exceptional Sasha (both of whom are her siblings). While her father loves her, he also fears for her future. In The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya is a character who seizes control of her future, instead of the destiny laid out for her by history. In a time where a woman’s future was to either marry or join a convent – both gilded cages for someone seeking freedom – Vasya escapes from those roles to find a way to save the village. I really enjoyed her fierce, independent spirit and her directness. The interactions of the story is actually written with a direct and blunt feel, making sure that no dialogue is gone to waste. However slow the pace is, I can’t deny that the author does a good job in making sure every word goes to use – whether it’s in developing the plot, creating emotional turmoil in and between characters, or in describing the vivid images of the world.
All the characters in this book struggle with things, whether it’s the lust or fear of Father Konstantin, immense close-mindedness of Anna, or limited options for a girl like Vasya. I enjoyed looking briefly into their minds through the third person writing, and each were very multi-dimensional, even when doing the wrong things. There is not quite a romance that happens, but this aspect is perhaps… hinted at? That’s the best way I can describe it, as like I said, the character interactions are very blunt and they kind of have better things to do than jump around feelings. It’s not something that forms through the book, though, so don’t head into it ready for a romance (I mean, I didn’t, but I figure it was worth mentioning). Vasya’s emotional and physical journey and development was enough to keep me entranced with the story.
With magical elements and characters such as Baba Yaga like in Uprooted by Naomi Novik and an adventure across the Russian woods like Hunted by Meagan Spooner, The Bear and the Nightingale is another fairy tale-like story that will immerse readers in its story. I’m actually really satisfied with how the book ended, although I do know that there is a sequel coming out (with an equally lovely cover!). I really hope that the sequel lives up to this one, because this beautiful story came as a surprise and ended pretty nicely. I did notice that the author left a bit of things untied, so I’m sure she’ll be honing in on those details in the next book. Overall, The Bear and the Nightingale features an independent heroine who’s note afraid to fight for her loved ones, and blends in an interesting exploration of history, religion, and folklore into this Russian-inspired fantasy that is as captivating as it is dark.
Thank you Netgalley and Del Rey for the review copy!