Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden

Summary: 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.

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. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I don’t know about you, but I have read many JFic and even YA Fic fairytale retellings over the past several years. Their popularity seems to have made resurgence not only in books but in TV as well. Even Disney is getting in on it—revamping their old tried and true fairytales for new versions or new reinterpretations or even just live action. I’ve enjoyed this movement quite a bit, actually. That’s not to say that all of the things I’ve read or seen have trumped the originals, but I think fairytales are an interesting lot and to have them be revisited and retold is really fun—especially when it’s done by a competent author who brings something new to the table.

The Bear and the Nightingale is just such a fairytale. Except it’s for adults. And that’s awesome, people. Because so many fairytales are told for the JFic and YA Fic audience. Those are fun, and I do love me some well-written JFic and YA Fic, but having an adult version really ups the ante. First of all, the story can be really complex. And this is such a story—it is many-layered and the culture plays a huge part of it. The layers bring about the complexity of the story. The culture not only houses the story, but provides a backdrop for the happenings and the beliefs of the people. These well-ingrained beliefs are the causality of the fairytale as well as the life in Russia during this time. It’s a fun juxtaposition of reality and shared cultural mythos. The new existing with the old. Those who are trying to move away from the beliefs of the past but are also paying the price for leaving the old beliefs behind.

But I think the thing that really makes this an adult book verses a book for a younger audience is that the villains are actually really scary—both the humans and the monsters. There is one particular human villain (and I’m trying not to give anything away here) who really is not what they appear to be. The monsters themselves are scary as well, and some are even scary in their ambivalence. They are not evil per se, but they just are. They do what they do and that happens to be something that maybe isn’t in line with humanity’s best interest. But that doesn’t necessarily make them evil outside the realm of humanity—they just are what they are. There are certainly some evil villains as well, and they are quite scary and do scary things. I’m being purposely vague here. This is a book you’ll want to enjoy by discovering these things yourself.

I loved the setting of this book. I felt like Arden did a good job of creating a world where both the mythical and non-mythical world could co-exist. I could feel the history and heaviness of the winters in Russia, as well as the heaviness of the circumstances in general. It is a complex book in the way that life is complex—there is a lot going on and not everyone may be working toward the same goal in the end.

If you enjoy fantasy or fairytales, and especially those with a specific cultural element to them, you should definitely check out this book. It really has a lot to offer.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and some sex as well as violence, some of it involving fantastical creatures, but not all. I would rate it a modern PG. It is not squeaky clean but it is not excessive, either. 

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