Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

My copy of the book.

Wild birds die in cages, even if outside of the cage is marked by uncertainty, is of a world not designed for women, and is the brutish medieval Rus’ (the name for the territory that encompassed what would now be western Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. But if you’re Vasilisa, or Vasya as she’s known, you are adamantly not afraid. In the capable hands of author, Katherine Arden in her 2017 novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya emerges as one of the best heroines of a familiar and yet, refreshingly spell-binding, fairy tale. I read this one as the companion to Uprooted for my Perfectly Paired book club.

In medieval Rus’, women have two paths, of which they have no decision in the matter: to either take a husband and spend their days pleasing him through sex (and with procreation also in mind) and slaving over an oven, or if you’re so unwedable, you join a convent. But Vasya doesn’t want a life like that. From an early age, she had the “sight” to see the “demons” roaming around the village she lived in with her father, Pyotr, brothers and sisters, Kolya, Sasha, Olga and Alyosha, and her nurse, Dunya (her mother, who likely also had the sight, died giving birth to her). They’re referred to as demons, but they’re basically just creatures who tend to the hay, the horses, the oven, and so forth. Vasya helps to feed them with “offerings,” as do the other villagers, and they continue taking care of those matters. It should be noted, by the way, that the oven is a big production and the most central aspect of a home in Rus’ because it is the source of food, the source of heat during killer winters, and even the source of sleep, as Vasya and others sleep on it for warmth.

Growing up, the children heard about the folklore, the “fairy tales” of the Frost Demon, or Morozko, who would take people in the wood who wandered into their cold graves, as it were. That is how the book starts, with Dunya telling the children this story, but it turns out not to be a mere folk story. Later, while exploring in the forest, Vasya encounters the one-eyed man at a strange tree. She doesn’t quite know what any of it means, but there is a definite since of foreboding at the one-eyed man’s presence.

After that, Pyotr realizes he needs a new wife to care for Vasya, so, he visits Moscow. Sasha, the brother, joins a Christian monastery. Pyotr finds a wife for himself, the daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow, Anna Ivanovna, who also has the sight like Vasya, but is terrified by it. People think she’s struck with madness, and for her part, Anna thinks she just needs to more fervently pray. Like any good fairy tale, Anna is a wicked stepmother because of her fundamentalism. She cares nothing for Vasya, and later, is willing to have Vasya killed, if it means protecting her own daughter she has with Pyotr.

A terrible combination is a mad fundamentalist, wicked stepmother and a righteous priest, Konstantin Nikonovich, the latter of whom is sent to Pyotr’s village for political reasons since the Grand Prince is worried about him sticking around in Moscow. Now, the villagers stop leaving offerings for the “demons,” turning instead to Christianity, thanks to Konstantin’s cult-like influence. Konstantin thinks he’s doing this all in the service of God, but as it turns out, he’s being guided by the one-eyed man, the Bear, or medved. He is the brother of the Frost Demon. The Frost Demon is actually Death itself roaming the lands for a thousand years and he’s kept his brother, the Bear, at bay, caged. (Here is a fun thought: the personification of the winter keeps the “bear” “hibernating” during his reign). For some reason, which I don’t know that it is ever made explicit, the Frost Demon is losing power and correspondingly, the Bear is gaining more power and may soon break free. He needs someone like Vasya or Anna, both of whom have the “sight,” to enrich his power even more.

The villagers come to think Vasya is a witch, who has brought the brutish winters, water-logged crops in the spring, and famine and death to their doorsteps. Speaking of doorsteps, death quite literally comes to their doorstep in the form of upyry, or vampires (or as I thought of them, zombies). The Bear has raised the dead, and so, Vasya has to deal with that, too. Those upyr were creepy creatures, by the way, especially later on when Dunya becomes one.

Vasya then further “dishonors” her father and brothers when the villagers see that she can ride a horse! Goodness knows, we can’t have a girl riding a horse! And she even did so in the service of rescuing her cousin on her would-be suitor’s horse. By the way, one of my favorite aspects of the book is that Vasya can also have conversations with horses, and the horses can be quite funny. Suffice it to say, the would-be suitor didn’t marry her in the arranged marriage, so the plan was to send Vasya off to a convent.

Instead, Vasya escapes into the forest (I loved that moment because she reasons with her brother that she’d rather die in the forest from cold because at least it was, for once, her decision) and is rescued by Morozko, the frost demon. There, she bonds with her forever horse, Solovey. Some of my favorite scenes in the book were Vasya’s conversations with Morozko and with Solovey; the former because of how enchanting it all was, and the latter because of how hilarious (the horse didn’t want his hair brushed, for example). Together (that is, all three of them), along with the creatures Vasya previously helped with offerings (including her own blood!), her brother, Alyosha (who believes Vasya is not a witch and is more charitable with her “unwomanly” adventures), they battle the Bear. When it looks like they might lose, Pyotr returns from fighting a deadly fire in a neighboring village and sacrifices himself for his family, rendering the Bear back to a caged one-eyed man. The Frost Demon explains, him and his brother couldn’t possibly understand sacrifice like that. Pyotr, for all his traditionalism and heeding to his patriarchal culture of his time, he still wasn’t willing to sacrifice his daughter. That was a beautiful moment.

Vasya is just so cool in defying the gender norms and expectations of her time, continually being unafraid and courageous, because as the Frost Demon noted, sure, you can have the sight, but to have courage is rarer still. She has courage in great abundance. I mean, she was willing to face down a gigantic bear with hardly a weapon! She stared in the face of Death itself (the Frost Demon) and survived before she knew that he was only testing her.

She was stubborn in the best way, raging against the lot given to women in that time. At one point, she says to the priest, “I was born for a cage, after all: convent or house, what else is there? For Vasya, it turns out, there is a great world beyond the village that most women will never get to see and she does at the end of the novel, riding off with Solovey. She was not a mare to be broken in (as she alludes to with the would-be suitor), but the one to dare to break out.

Also, since two of the main awful human characters are wayward Christians, is this a book about the dangers of religion? I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is an atheist book or something, but it felt like a repudiation of fundamentalism, if nothing else. Or that, turning away from the folklores is where danger lies, not within them.

I loved Arden’s book. Her characters are exquisitely, richly drawn, with fast-paced plotting without sacrificing the beautiful writing or the scene-setting of the creepy Rus’ winters with its many unnerving creatures. I also enjoyed the glossary in the back to learn more about Russian folklores and such.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy now!

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