The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Deep in the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year. Hardy souls struggle to carve a life out in a place where the snowdrifts are often taller than the houses.

Young Vasilisa doesn’t mind. She was born to this wild place and happily spends many a winter night huddled around the fire with her siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Of them all, the loves the story of Frost – the blue eyed winter demon who appears in the night to claim unwary souls. Wise is the person who fears him, her nurse says. And wise is the person who honors the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their home from evil.

With Vasilisa’s mother dead, her father; in the realization that his young daughter needs a woman’s influence, marries again. Fiercely devout, the new stepmother forbids the family from keeping the old way and honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa somehow senses that more hinges on the rituals than any one knows.

The Bear and the Nightingale is one of those books that reads like a fairy tale within a fairy tale. As a little girl, Vasilisa grew up on the stories and when she becomes a young woman she finds herself living one. She is the plucky, brave girl with the overbearing and sometimes cruel stepmother. She escapes to the woods or out to the barns where her only friends are animal or spirit. Her father and other siblings are well meaning but they are unfortunately clueless.

Though at times Vasilisa can come across as headstrong, one has to remember that she is a teenager and is reacting as such. Her world is changing, both internally and externally, and she is having to adjust.

Set during a time in history where Russia was undergoing changes both religiously and socially, Arden skillfully weaves a story incorporating these issues in how the characters react. Everyone’s reactions – their anger, their sadness, their fear – all have a realism about them that draws the reader in. The characters are well written and it is easy for one to form an attachment to one or more.

I personally enjoyed reading The Bear and the Nightingale and am looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

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