The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is very much a story in the Uprooted vein. At its simplest, we have a rebellious daughter with hidden talents who must align herself with mythological, dubious intentioned entities else lose the lives of her family, her people, and quite possibly her very way of life. At its simplest, that is the story Arden has crafted, but The Bear and the Nightingale is so much more than that simple synopsis. Set in a rich world full of tradition, politics, and magic, the author strikes the perfect balance between nuanced, vibrant characters with complex motives and personalities and a plot that continuously moves forward.
Vasilisa Petrovna’s birth is marked by death when her mother dies giving her life. Her mother, Marina, who is possessed of special gifts, knows Vasilisa, or Vasya, will be her last child and that she will not survive the ordeal, but she gives birth to her daughter anyway because she knows the gifts Vasya will bring into the world will be even greater than her own. Vasya is raised a wild child. Not because of her father’s lack of tutelage but because she is a creature that will not be controlled. Often she slips into the woods on her own, walking the forest paths and meeting the mythological dwellers there that only she can see. On one such walk she comes upon a great tree and a one-eyed man sleeping at its base. The man is no man at all, but a demon who slumbers now but is slowly waking. Once he does wake, he promises “everlasting life” to any who follow him. His offer is not what it may seem, of course, and so Vasya finds herself in opposition to the waking demon.
Vasya is a headstrong woman in a world where such initiative is not often desired nor praised unless such person is a man. But Konstantin, Vasya’s daughter, is an understanding man who knows his daughter’s fire comes from her mother. I liked Konstantin a lot. He is very much walking a line of his own between the traditional world he lives in and a more progressive one where he sees his daughter’s wild spirit free to do as she pleases. The times when he considers his Vasya toiling over a hot stove and seeing to her children and husband’s needs he is stricken with a heavy heart, for he knows the great potential Vasya possesses would be wasted on such a life. At the very end, Konstantin knows what he has to do to set his daughter free forever; his love for her is strong enough that he never hesitates.
There are many other interesting characters: a priest whose story takes an unforeseen turn when he meets Vasya, a stepmother who embodies much of the atypical stepmother role so often seen in fairy tales, and an ensemble of brothers and sisters who are mostly supportive. Then there are the creatures whom only Vasya can see: vodianoy, vazila, upyrs aplenty, rusalka, and the brothers who are demons whom the real story revolves around. I’ll refrain from delving too much into any one of these, especially the brothers, for fear of giving something away, but suffice to say that the brothers are opposed to one another and Vasya finds herself caught in the middle.
Of the world Arden has built for her novel all I can say is very well done. Set in the world of Rus’, it is very much a Russia that may have existed to some degree but many aspects only in folklore. Still, it is a beautiful depiction of a deep winter world where families huddle together around their oven to sleep and stay warm and where the coming snow cuts off entirely the rural community Vasya calls home from the rest of the world.
The Bear and the Nightingale is historical fantasy fiction at its best. A vibrant world, rich characters, more than a hint of the supernatural, and an endearing main character who doesn’t have all the answers but isn’t afraid to find them makes this a must-read. Vasya’s story continues in The Girl in the Tower. It’s already on my reading list.