The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Blurb On The Back:

A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter.  Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, wilful girl, to the chagrin of her family.

But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

In the Russia of long ago, Pyotr Vladimirovich is a boyar (lord) in the wild north of the country married to Marina Ivanovna (daughter of the Grand Prince and a beautiful woman who emerged from the forest and was rumoured to have strange powers).  Together they have three sons (Kolya, Sasha, and Alyosha) and a daughter (Olga).  When Marina falls pregnant again she knows that this child will inherit some of her mother’s abilities but Marina dies in childbirth and her daughter, Vasya, grows up wild, wilful and charming with a passion for nature and the nearby woods that no one can control.

Pyotr hopes that a new mother could be a good influence and goes to Moscow in search of a bride.  There he meets a mysterious stranger with piercing blue eyes who gives him a strange necklace to give to Vasya.  Pyotr and Vasya’s nanny, Dunya, hide the necklace instead.  But there’s a darkness gathering in the Russian winter and the stranger knows that only Vasya and the necklace can keep it at bay …

Katherine Arden’s debut fantasy novel is a charming story based on Russian folklore with a fiercely independent main female character and some sharp comments about the abuse of religion, power and belief.  The story makes full use of its wide cast and I particularly enjoyed the chapters where Pyotr, Kolya and Sasha visit Moscow and become inadvertently embroiled in the power games there.  Vasya wants an independence that’s at odds with a woman’s role at the time (getting married or joining a convent).  Her scenes with the power-hungry, pious Konstantin are well executed, pitching Vasya and the old ways against those who use religion for personal ends.  Also good are Vasya’s scenes with her stepmother, Anna, not least because they should have much in common but while Anna fears her gifts, Vasya embraces and makes use of them.  The Russian folklore elements are weaved subtly through the plot and the Frost Demon Morozko appears sparingly, making him more interesting (although I wished that Solovey the horse had appeared earlier as their dialogue was great).  If I’m being critical I wanted to know more about what happened to Sasha and Alyosha and the characters are perhaps a little too broadly painted (notably a proposed husband for Vasya) but this is an enjoyable, confident first novel and I eagerly await read Arden’s next book.

THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE was released in the United Kingdom on 12th January 2017.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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