Goodreads: The Bear and the Nightingale
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #1
Published: January 10, 2016
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 had heard a lot about how beautiful and moving The Bear and the Nightingale was before deciding to pick it up, so I had some high expectations. I am always looking for books that are different, lyrical, and just all-around enjoyable. In the end, however, I was not quite as impressed with this book as many other readers have been. Although the characters are interesting, the plot is unevenly paced, and I guess I’m also a bit fatigued by mainstream literature representing religious leaders as corrupt social climbers and religious followers as fools.
The main two Christian characters in the novel are, admittedly, extremely interesting. One is a charismatic priest who was building an almost cult following by painting skillful icons, annoyed at being sent to the back woods of Russia until he realizes he might have a calling to stamp out the vestiges of pagan practices on the estate. The other is a young woman, sincerely devout, troubled by the fact she seems demons everywhere that practically no one else can. Now, the intersection of Christianity and folk religion is a fascinating topic, and I love to see it explored in literature; however, I think Arden missed some opportunities to be as nuanced as she could be here, as the book takes the hard line that the folk beliefs are real, and anyone following Christianity is apparently a nut. I suppose I would have liked more subtlety in the exploration of how these two belief systems can interact and whether they can survive together.
Our heroine, Vasilisa, holds firm to the old beliefs; her primary talent seems to be having a hereditary skill to see mystical creatures and find out what they want–generally, offerings. On one hand, I admire her tenacity and her strength in trying to hold her estate together as the evil priest and the evil stepmother attempt to stamp out the old ways. On the other hand, it’s easy to believe in protective house spirits when you can see and talk to them, so I think the faith of people who can’t see them, like Vasilisa’s nurse, is more interesting.
My main issue, however, is with the pacing of the novel. The beginning is slow, which is fine; I think the acceptance of slowness is frequently one of the dividing characters of adult books vs. young adult books. However, it is frustrating that 90% of the book is slow, and when the author gets to the climax, the main battle, the thing she has been building up to, it’s over in practically an instant. More time could have been spent making this climatic scene matter.
The Bear and the Nightingale is charming at parts and thoughtful and lyrical. It just didn’t capture my imagination or my attention quite as much as I had hoped.