Thursday, May 10, 2018

Book 128: The Bear and the Nightingale

"On and on she went, and then paused, frowning. Left at the gray alder, round the wicked old elm, and then she would see her father's fields. She had walked that path a thousand times. But now there was no alder and no elm, only a cluster of black-needled spruces and a little snowy meadow. Vasya swung round, tried a new direction. No, here were slender beeches, standing white as maidens, naked with winter and trembling. Vasya was suddenly uneasy. She would not be lost; she was never lost. Might as well be lost in her own house as lost in the woods. A wind picked up that set all the trees to shaking, but now they were trees she did not know."

Dates read: February 21-26, 2017

Rating: 9/10

Although my parents split up before I was born, I've never known my father to have a serious girlfriend. Or maybe he's had them but never introduced them to me. In any case, I never had a stepmother. My sister has. Although her father never remarried, he's been with the same woman for a long, long time. She's a lovely person and cares very much about my sister. Honestly, despite the stereotype of the "wicked stepmother", I've never personally heard about more than one or two really bad stepparents.

But it's a storytelling trope that has roots in reality. In times and places where resources were scarce and women often died (usually of childbirth-related complaints) by early middle adulthood, a new wife who had children of her own looked out for the best interests of her offspring above any others. The most famous literary example of a wicked stepmother? Probably Cinderella. It's a story that's remarkably common around the world: China has a version. Iran has a version. And of course, there's the European takes on the tale that inspired the brothers Grimm. It's this familiar territory that Katherine Arden mines for her debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale.

Arden gives us as our heroine Vasilisa, the youngest child of Pyotr and Marina. Vasya grows up with her four older siblings in a small village in Russia, bordering the kind of large and dark wood that a good fairy tale needs. After Marina dies in childbirth, the girl grows up half-wild, listening to old Slavic folk tales at the feet of her elderly nurse. But to Vasya, they're not just folk tales. She can see them, the spirits that populate Slavic mythology, and talk to them too. It's a trait she shares with her stepmother-to-be, Anna. But while rural-dwelling Vasya accepts this about herself, Anna, as a member of the urban nobility, is a devout Christian and thinks herself tormented by devils. Once she moves to the countryside after her marriage to Pyotr, the only place she can find peace is the church. She becomes obsessed with the handsome and vain priest, Father Konstantin, who is just as obsessed in turn with rooting out the local superstitions. There's a tinge of American Gods here, because the fading belief saps the strength of the spirits just when they're most needed in a battle brewing between the larger and more powerful forces of evil and of justice.

The characters that populate The Bear and the Nightingale are wonderful. Vasya is a delightfully high-spirited heroine, but what I enjoyed even more was that Arden didn't make Anna a simple bad stepmom. Instead, she's presented as scared, and her behavior towards Vasya is obviously rooted more in this fear than spitefulness. And even though the father in Cinderella stories often comes off as neglectful, Pyotr is a loving parent who has a hard time dealing with his first wife's death, his second wife's obvious mental health issues, and a daughter he doesn't know how to raise. And the world that Arden creates is rich and vivid. It's the first first-in-a-series that I've read in quite a while that's made me actually Google when the next entry is coming out because I want to continue along in the story Arden is beginning to unfold. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights

Two years ago, I was reading: The Witches of Eastwick


  1. Sounds like a good story. If my TBR wasn't so large I would probably start searching for it. I loved American Gods and Anansi Boys and also read the Golom and the Genie, which is in the same vein. I will put this on the "someday" list.

    1. The follow-up has already been published and I really liked that one too, and the final book comes out this summer...maybe wait until they're all out in paperback. I haven't actually read Anansi Boys yet, but I have that and Golem just waiting to be read!

  2. I love books with complicated characters. I need to read this one. It’s been on my TBR list since before it came out. Great review!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. Thank you! I loved it and the sequel so much that I have the third one pre-ordered from the UK (the cover designs for these books over there are WONDERFUL).