The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden, Del Rey, 2017, 312 pp
I have been wanting to read this since it was first published early last year. Sometimes I just get a feeling about a book and when that happens I am usually right. This is a big fairy tale of a novel, set in medieval Russia where winters are long and icy, where summers are short but glorious, where women have only two options: marriage or convent.
The story opens on a dreary and damp March night. Though Pyotr Vladimirovich is considered a wealthy land owner, the food choices are down to black bread and fermented cabbage, all noses are running, and chilblains are aching. But the oven is warm and Dunya, the family nanny, is about to tell the story of Frost, the frost demon, the winter king.
The stage is thus set for a time when Christianity was in competition with the ancient gods and folk tales, when a woman like Marina, wife of Pyotr and mother of four children, decides to risk one more pregnancy. Once a princess in Moscow, she had been married off to Pyotr at the behest of the Church because she had certain powers they feared.
Marina carried her baby to term but died after naming the girl Vasilisa, who grew up to love the forests, to be able to see and communicate with the household spirits, and who would not be quelled, ever. Not by Dunya, who raised here, not by her father's second wife, and not by the priest who arrived at the village determined to "save" the villagers from the blasphemy of beliefs in the old gods.
It is a wonderful tale complete with a magical horse reminiscent of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and throbbing with Vasilisa's courage and unquenchable demand for freedom. I was also reminded of Marina from Janet Fitch's The Revolution of Marina M, as well as The Night Circus and Naomi Novik's Uprooted. Also The Mists of Avalon because of the conflicts between Christianity and the old beliefs.
I think it takes a special kind of writer to handle magic well in an adult novel. Katherine Arden has proven to me that she is special in that way and I am thrilled to know The Bear and the Nightingale is the first of a trilogy, I want to spend more time with Vasilisa.
The other day the Tiny Book Club sat in the tiny house of one of our members to share a luncheon and discuss the book. We delved into many aspects of life, past and present, recalling the fairy tales and myths we knew, as we watched a hummingbird circle the new feeder our hostess had recently hung in a tree outside her front wall of windows. The bird never landed on the feeder, but continued to approach it from all angles, then fly away. As though it were not used to a vial of sugar water set out by a human instead of the flowers growing in the beautiful and magical yard. It seemed appropriate.
(The Bear and the Nightingale is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)