In The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden, creatures and characters from Russian folklore barge into ordinary life and wreak havoc for Vasilisa Petrovna. Fittingly, the novel opens with a story about Morozko, the winter-king, who rewards the brave with riches but allows the cowardly and selfish to freeze. Russian folklore pulls no punches.
After the story about Morozko that sets the tone for the rest of The Bear and the Nightingale, the narrative takes us back a set to learn about the hardscrabble life of a boyar family in the wilderness north of Moscow sometime during the reign of the Golden Horde. Vasilisa Petrovna has always been a bit odd—talking to people no one else can see, an uncanny ability to work with horses, general uppityness that drives her father nuts—but her strangeness starts to cause real trouble after her father remarries a deeply religious, but deeply fearful woman. Anna Ivanova can also see the domovoi, bannik, and the rest and it is starting to drive her mad. She uses religion to keep it away as much as possible, though she has a tough fight ahead of her since the rest of the household and village are still mostly pagan.
Events really come to a head when a new priest comes from Moscow to replace the older, more tolerant priest. Konstantin Nikonovich begins a crusade against the old ways, unwittingly destabilizing an ancient magic spell that is keeping everyone safe from a creature that wants to devour them all. In Konstantin’s first few weeks in the village, he’s a nuisance to Vasilisa Petrovna. But in the best fanatical fashion, Konstantin Nikonovich begins to put the fear into the villagers. Before long, it’s starting to look a lot like Salem in this place at the end of the great Russian forest.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a novel of many layers. At the top, we get a gripping story of a girl getting into adventures. Another layer is feminist, as Vasilisa Petrovna finds the will to defy the men in her life who would boss her around. Another layer addresses the conflict of beliefs: old animism versus new Christianity. The top layer of adventure keeps things interesting, while the others leave plenty to think about after the last page.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 January 2017.