THE BEAR and the NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden is a book I never thought I’d read. My “extended family” grandson, Alex, recommended it to me. (It’s part of the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY.) A gorgeous Russian medieval fairy tale that blossoms slowly into a thoughtful, emotionally complex story, with witchcraft, magic and history, Arden weaves together a variety of Russian folk tales to tell one beautiful story.
The book sweeps us back to the Middle Ages…into the vast wilderness of northern Russia, where it’s cold and wintery most of the year…you can almost feel the icy air on your skin, descriptions are so vivid. So, we have a wintery setting, a magical forest, fairy tale elements like demons, dark creatures and spirits…and finally, a feeling of uncertainty and superstition- the clash between the old time gods and the new, modern religious beliefs (with townsfolk still tied to the stories of old- the creatures that hide in the dark, the demons lurking in the corners, the spirits living in the woods and waters.) This is the atmosphere in which we find our protagonist, VASYA, and her family. Vasya is a child of nature, wild and willful, with powers that leave the villagers questioning the nature of those powers, many believing she’s a witch. She’s definitely a girl who doesn’t wish to follow the path society has predetermined for her…to marry or join a convent. There’s a great message here…girls can be anything they want to be, no matter what society may dictate- a difficult path back then, but oh so real now! I loved that!!
Arden’s writing is this book’s strongest selling point: evocative, beautifully descriptive, imagery that pops with details alive enough to make you smell the smoke and feel the cold; it’s haunting, vivid and poetic. I will definitely be picking this up again come wintertime, cozily bundled near a fire, with a cup of hot chocolate nearby, because this book is the sort of magical warmth and comfort that everyone deserves during the coldest times. For now…on to the next book in the trilogy…GIRL IN THE TOWER.