THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden

This is a modern version of an old Russian folktale, or maybe a compilation of several, but it is fantasy, set in Russia in the 1300s, in the days when Moscow was a remote backwater town with wooden structures.

And, as usual, why should I go through the whole plot thing when it has very conveniently been laid out for us already?  Here it is, heavily edited by me to add more details.

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.  The area is full of spirits — house spirits, stable spirits, river spirits, forest guardians, all kinds of creatures.  The village people know they are there, but cannot see them.  However, they always leave food and bedding for them.

Vasilisa is special, because she CAN see them, and talk to them.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. This very very young woman has been hiding  the fact from everyone that she sees demons and spirits.  The only place she does not see them is in church, so natch, she has become fiercely devout. And she forbids her new family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.    A monk who is skilled in icon painting is sent to this small village, because he is becoming too popular in Moscow.  He believes he can save everyone because they still have the old pagan beliefs.  He begins to harangue the people in church, exhorting them to give up their attentions and beliefs in the spirits. And so the villagers do, but bad things begin to happen.

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.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed–this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Beautifully written, and if you are into folktales, you will love it.  I am not so much a fan of fantasy, so I was not as much  entranced.  I had decided to read it based on all the talk about how wonderful it is.  I have to keep reminding myself to pay attention to the community doing the cheerleading for any given book.

Oh, and the bear and the nightingale?  They are the names for winter and a horse that helps Vasilisa.  This book is just chock full of symbolism, and if you read the book, I do urge you to do a little research on the symbolism in the story.  It is very interesting.

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