National Bestseller The Bear and the Nightingale may not be an immediate pick for a summer read, but it’s an absolute must. Any time of the year. Taking place mostly in the dead of winter, this novel by Katherine Arden does more than take your mind off the heat. It brings you to a place where the fairy tales are true. Where the old ways and religion are at odds with one another, showing where tradition should be followed, and where it should be broken.
The writing style is a combination of fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and folklore. And it works beautifully. In a remote 14th Century Russian village, the old ways of believing in spirits are halted by the arrival of a new priest. When he instills fear in anyone who does not commit to God alone, Vasya, a teenage daughter of a prominent family, must do what she can to save the spirits, and her people, when evil comes knocking at their door.
There is a secret in young Vasya’s family, from her mother’s side. She has the ability to see and speak to the spirits that live in homes, stables, and the woods. These spirits protect the people in exchange for offerings of food and drink. No one else can see them except for Vasya’s new stepmother once her father remarries. Instead of helping the spirits, the stepmother fears them and implores a new Christian priest to help rid her of the “demons.” Once the offerings stop, the spirits become weak and are unable to protect the people.
At the same time, the Winter-King, a spirit known as Morozko and often thought of as a demon, is waiting for Vasya to join him. As fear spreads in the village and other spirits grow weaker, his brother known as The Bear grows stronger, a deadly threat to the people. As Morozko is the spirit of winter, death, and order, The Bear is the spirit of fear and chaos. Vasya must not only protect her people from starving or freezing to death but decide whether or not to join Morozko against The Bear.
The Untamable Vasya
Vasya is one of those characters you always wanted to be growing up. She is wild. She is independent. At a time when a woman’s role is to obey, marry, and have sons, Vasya defies all expectations set for her. She talks to spirits and spends her time with the horses and in the woods. Rides stallions with wild abandon. Speaks out against the priest for making the people fearful of the old ways. She is fiercely protective of her family. She is a spirit animal in her own right.
With the only options to marry or go to a convent, Vaysa does neither. Instead, she runs into the woods where she sees the Winter-King and The Bear. Both whom she has seen before since childhood. Fearless, caring, and determined, Vasya is the person you’d want on your side whether going up against a priest, a mob, or an evil spirit.
Combining Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Folk Tales
When The Bear and the Nightingale starts, we are treated to an old-fashioned fairy tale. The tale of Morozko has a similar story thread to what happens to Vasya and her people. The role the traditions and folklore play grow as more people believe in them; creating its own kind of magic.
The fantasy elements of spirits, mystical creatures, demons, and protective barriers are seamlessly woven into the lore of the story. In a weird way, these elements are more grounded in reality than the Christian beliefs introduced to the villagers. It allows you to question what is real, what matters, and can both the old and new ways co-exist?
It’s a mesmerizing world to explore and an engaging way to tell a story.
Final Thoughts on The Bear and the Nightingale
There aren’t enough wonderful things to say about this story. It’s real and fantastical, it’s mysterious and familiar all at once. Vasya’s spirit is contagious. The constrictions set on her are frustrating and all too familiar. However, it’s a joy to see her break free and be her own person.
Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale thankfully is the first in a series called The Winternight Trilogy. With more of this story waiting to be told, readers will be excited to see what awaits Vasya, the Winter-King, and The Bear in The Girl In The Tower, available now.
This story will have you believing in fairy tales again and looking for spirits in the trees. Read it, and embrace your inner Vaysa.