You know how some books can really put you under their spell? Make you unable to put them down, fully dragging you into the narrative, so deep you forget to come up for air? The Bear and the Nightingale has that kind of pure, raw magic to it. Before I was even halfway through this book, I knew I needed the hardcover.
A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, Pytor hides the gift away and Vasya grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made me love this book so much. I think, first of all, the storytelling quality it has to it. The style has that folktale feel to it, even though it’s much more complex than the kind of story you would be told around the fire on a cold winter’s night. The fact that it manages to tell tales while being a tale itself really made me enjoy it even more.
Maybe that’s why it was so engrossing. The way I could be pulled into the stories inside the story. The way it made me feel the snow and the cold, to wish there was a fire beside me. The way it shared Russian mythology with me, while turning these folk characters into ‘real’ people, with complex problems and motivations.
Vasya is a firecracker. She grows up playing in the woods, befriending the spirits there. She learns to speak with the horses, and they teach her to ride. She gives up her food and her own blood to those who protect her, and she protects in return. But this kind of action has her labeled as a witch, a wild child who will never be able to hold down a husband. She is very much a modern girl in this tale, even though she is the only one to believe the old stories as everyone else moves on. She bold, strong, and caring, and overall fiercely loyal, all without coming off as annoying. A brilliant character whom I loved.
Overlaying this on a landscape and a time period where the only options for a woman are matrimony or the convent, Vasya struggles to find her place. Well, I should say, other have a hard time placing Vasya: Vasya knows what she wants.
The major theme here at play seems to be the first of old tales versus new beliefs. As christianity is brought – or, I should say, enforced – into the small villages, the old beliefs are swept aside, and the spirits are fading. No wonder people think Vasya is a witch. The priest, Konstantin, sees he child as the enemy, someone trying to undo gods work, trying to tempt him. The fight of old versus new grows, as an old threat returns. Pretty bad timing for a priest.
A few minor things ticked me off, like how Vasya’s growth into a woman was handled – some of the comparisons were a little creepy, as well as the looks of men. That, and I’m not quite sure about the Nightingale in the title, since it only shows up towards the end. I assumed Vasya would be the nightingale: maybe it’s a metaphor that flew over my head (pun not intended.)
Another little detail – that’s mainly my own problem! – was that, to respect the Russian culture and spelling, a lot of the character has multiple names. Their first names, nicknames, nicknames built off nicknames… a little confusing as there were so many. Again, my own issue.
All in all, this is a fantastic, beautiful book. It reminds me of Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, which I also adored this year, but with some of the themes Neil Gaiman loves to write. So if you love either of them, you’re going to devour the Bear and the Nightingale. Out January 10th.