The wonderful Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I think her wisdom can also be applied to books.
I have a memory of a goldfish and hardly ever remember what I just read. But I never, ever forget how I felt when I read a certain book.
Why am I telling you this?
The Bear and the Nightingale triggered an emotion in me I cannot forget.
It brought me nostalgia, that bittersweet feeling of sadness mixed with longing and laughter.
It transported me back to my childhood. Back to when my grandma would tuck me underneath a blanket whilst reading me stories of Rusalka. Back to when she would tell me about Mrazík (Morozko) before she would kiss me goodnight. I terribly miss her, and I would give anything to hear her reading me one more tale. Seeing those old folk stories in The Bear and the Nightingale brought me my nana back.
Let’s get the summary of the book from GoodReads first:
A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.
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.
It’s not a fast-paced story at all. To me, The Bear and the Nightingale was all about its atmosphere.
There is a poetic feel to it. The slow pace of its story reminded me of sitting in the woods whilst watching a river go slowly by, enjoying the warmth of sun on my face.
Because of Arden’s skilled writing, you can feel being cold in the Russian winter woods. You can also experience that creepy anticipation of terror as something bad is hiding in the dark corner of your room.
The narrator is Vasya / Vasilisa and we follow her a coming-of-age story. There is a powerful sense of innocence mixed with ancient wisdom as she learns to trust her intuition whilst honouring her traditions. There is also a sense of uncertainty as old beliefs are disappearing and new ones are becoming ‘the truth’. That reminded of Neil Gaiman’s American Goods.
“It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God’s name.”
I liked Vasya for her feistiness as well as for her values. It is a fierce character that can be stubborn and sometimes hasty. But she evolves and that’s why I cared about her.
Side note: I would recommend reading the glossary in the back of the book first to anyone without any Slavic language knowledge. It can be utterly confusing seeing several, sometimes very differently sounding names, being referred to the same person. For example Sasha (Saša) is the shortened version of Alexander and Alexandra. I can see how that could put someone off this book.
To her credit, Arden remained true to how Russians would call each other, and I really appreciate it. It wasn’t just a book set in ‘Old Russia’, I felt I was there because it seemed authentic. (Cough cough, still can’t get over Daughter of Smoke & Bone and how ‘un-Czech’ most of those Czech characters felt…. sorry, just saying…).
I highly recommend The Bear and the Nightingale to anyone who enjoys atmospheric books as well as Slavic fairy tales.
Random facts about my name: My name is Vera. In Czech it is Věra. The Russian meaning of my name is faith (вера). My name can be softened to show an affection to Věruška. My Czech family and friends also call me Věrka, Věrča or Věruš. 🙂