(The Bear and the Nightingale #1)
Genre: fantasy, fairy tale, historical fiction
Read: 19th January 2017
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.
I really enjoyed this book and its amazing fairytale atmosphere. The cold feels so tangible and the old faith so omnipresent (in a good way) that you’re transported into a time and place unlike any you’ve encountered before. I really enjoyed this immersion into Eastern European mythology. I want more, so I’m eagerly awaiting any books to come – please be as good as this one. I’ve rarely felt so pulled into a book that is basically a fleshed out fairy tale with some carefully handled adult content (mentioned only in passing). So it is definitely for more mature young readers, the fairy tale elements nonwithstanding.
I love Vasya – she’s exactly the right female protagonist. She quickly endears herself to any reader, even though she’s like a force of nature – here one moment, there the other. No one can tame her, not that they actually try to do so for it would destroy what makes Vasya, Vasya. In fact, the author can’t help herself but write characters you have to love or at least sympathise with – even the bad guys. There are only one or two characters you won’t like, but you won’t hate them with a passion either. It’s refreshing to have very diverse characters in regards to temperament, education, temperament, and social status, and none of them are villified for who they are.
The tale steadily raises the stakes, and the more we know of this world, the more we can appreciate just how tangled the web that binds Vasya to the old powers truly is. She manages to give us hope throughout the book, so despite the mounting danger and terror, this is an uplifting story.
A few Russian words peppered into the tale give it extra authenticity, so be prepared for some awesome vocabulary words in your reading (the glossary is included, so no fear). I really enjoyed the diminutives that are so common in slavic languages. The places and customs are described in an unobtrusive way, giving us a better appreciation of the characters, and the story moves forward steadily; the pages almost turn by themselves! I’m only sorry that I felt the ending a little rushed and open, but considering this book has a sequel, that makes sense.
A recommended read for anyone looking for a fairy tale set in Eastern Europe.