72 points, 3 ¾ stars
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 do not like half answers.”
“Stop asking half questions, then,” he said, and smiled with sudden charm.
The Bear and the Nightingale is an amazingly written, beautiful coming of age tale taking place during 14th century rural Rus. This is during a time when belief in magic is strong but the Russian Orthodox Church is getting stronger. When Rus is not the autonomous giant it is today.
This book threads Russian folktales and myths with Christianity. A large part of the book is the friction between these two elements. The country folks desire to keep the old traditions alive vs. the Christian belief that the old beliefs are devils to be destroyed. It was so nice to be reading something from this part of the world and this era, which isn’t something I see often in fantasy.
The main character is Vasya, and she is connected to the world of magic, taking after her grandmother. She grows up in the pages of this book. She isn’t like the rest of her family or village, she is different and never quite fits in. She gets into a lot of trouble because she doesn’t play by the norms others live by. She can see and talk to the hidden parts of the world. She is headstrong because she is so different she doesn’t understand what she is doing wrong but won’t compromise who she is.
Yet The Bear and the Nightingale isn’t just Vasya growing up and coming into her own. There is her family, who has ties to the Royalty in the capital. And there is something dangerous lurking, growing stronger. Something that others can’t see, and only makes itself known when a Christian fervor over-sweeps the village. And it may bring Vasya down in the process.
Overall, I liked The Bear and the Nightingale, but I didn’t love it. I liked the historical Rus aspects, and the magical mythologies come to life. I found the Christianity sort of “killing” the magic of the land and the very least interesting. The part I didn’t care for was Vasya herself. Her family was never willing to deal with her and teach her, so she was just left to run wild and do her own thing (though they certainly told themselves they had to deal with her enough times throughout the book). And then Vasya caused a lot of the problems in the book because of this ignorance. It just rubbed me the wrong way the entire time.