The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine
Pub Date 10 Jan 2017
ARC courtesy of Netgalley
I am not as familiar with Russian folklore, history or literature as I should be. What I have read as an adult, I have enjoyed. As a student, I struggled with the patronymics as an addition to first and surnames. I felt like I needed a cheat sheet of who was who with all their individual possible names listed. As an adult, I have not had this issue because I have found authors like Katherine Arden whose character’s voices are so clear the name attached to them does not matter.
Katherine Arden takes us to Russian in the mid 14th century, before it is truly Russian. The Rus’ who eventually give the country it’s name, are a feudal country but under the thumb of the Khan. They pay yearly tribute to the current ruler of the Golden Horde and that ruler has a say in who rules the Rus’. The Russian Orthodox Church, the branch of Christianity that developed in Russia, was still relatively new, not as old as Christianity in Europe. The people who live far from the center of government, still have their old beliefs existing alongside their new Christianity. The old beliefs embrace supernatural beings of home and hearth, of forest and water, of stables and livestock. These beings accept small sacrifices, bread and salt, sometimes a few drops of blood, in exchange for helping to protect and nourish the land and its people. The clerics of Christianity hold these beings to be demons and warn the people against them.
The tension between the old beliefs and the new religion are central to The Bear and the Nightingale. This is a book about a country, a people and a family in the process of change. Change is rarely simple or peaceful or bloodless. Vasilisa (Vasya) is the central character. She is the bridge between the old and the new. Her mother, Marina, was the daughter of a Grand Prince in Moscow. Her mother was an unknown maiden who captured her father’s heart with one glance but had an air of the supernatural to her. Marina passes her gifts, given to her by her mother, to her last child Vasilisa and dies giving her life. From the beginning Vasilisa can see the guardians of the hearth and the yard, the one who protects the stable and the one of the lake who kills to live. She not only sees them, she speaks with them.
As she grows from a homely child into a striking young woman, the people of the village accept she is as strange as her mother was. There is never any danger about her until a priest from Moscow arrives. He arrives banished from Moscow because his icon painting brought him too much notice. Father Konstantin does not feed his new flock on the the good news, he feeds them fears of damnation, fears of demons in the guise of the old beliefs, he feeds them distrust of Vasilisa’s gifts. As the old beliefs diminish, an older evil awakens in the forest. It is waiting to be freed from its chains to unleash chaos, fear and death. But standing in it’s way are a young girl and an the oldest god.
I enjoyed this book immensely. I hope I did not give away any spoilers in my description of the book. The book is so rich in so many ways. The taste and textures, the weather and the fabrics, the light and the dark. All are described so beautifully. The characters are not entirely relatable in the modern sense but they are in the sense that we have all fought battles and found allies in the most unlikely of places. The language of the book is gorgeous. It flowed very easily. I would be interested in hearing this as an audiobook as I think it can only improve by correct pronunciations opposed to what my ignorant mind read it as.
My two critiques of this book are simple. The glossary should be at the front of the book immediately following the contests but before the epigraph, not at the end after the author’s note. I did not realize it was there until I finished the book. It would have been very helpful to have access to that information from the first page on. The second critique, and honestly I do not know how to solve this one, is I had difficulty understanding the politics that governed the characters’ lives. I did not have a good understanding of the hierarchy of the royalty. A Grand Prince is mentioned. How do the other Princes and the boyars, like Vasilisa’s father, fit in this power structure?
I would recommend The Bear and the Nightingale for anyone who wants to escape to a world where the old magic still lives and dreams have meaning. It really is an enchanted story.