Apologies for the long hiatus from reviewing. I’ve definitely been reading, but it’s a lot easier to read on the train than to try to find time for all the reviews. But never fear! I hope I’ll have several posted in the next few weeks.
I am a sucker for anything related to fairy tales, folk tales, mythology, and the blurring between the real, spiritual, and magical worlds, even more so when the novel in question is being touted as a spectacular debut. I started Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale with expectations high, and I was thrilled to find it lived up to those expectations.
From Amazon: “At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasya 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…Wise Russians…honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil. Vasya’s new stepmother, fiercely devout and city-bred, forbids her family from honoring the household spirits…Crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasya’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent. As danger circles, Vasya 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.”
One of the reasons I have put off writing this review is that this book is hard to describe without going overboard. I usually prefer to write my own descriptions, but with this one I couldn’t leave anything out. So I finally decided Amazon’s blurb was good enough, but don’t let it fool you into thinking this is a tale as simple as good and evil. That is the beauty of this book: nothing is quite as simple and straightforward as it seems.
Take the battle of the spirit world: the novel is set in 14th century Russia when the Russian Orthodox Church was quickly gaining power yet Russians in rural areas still practiced the old ways of leaving offerings for the house spirits and wearing charms to protect them from the evils of the forest. And at first it seems as if the book might be arguing that traditional beliefs are better than the more “modern” Christian ones. The arrival of the Church in the forms of Vasya’s step-mother and the new young zealot of a priest conflict with these old traditions, and their messages of intolerance cause the villages to disavow their old beliefs. This, in turn, weakens the house spirits and their protections. However, Arden introduces a small historical character, an actual patriarch in the Russian Orthodox Church, who reveals a message of balance and love. So we see it is not simply old vs. new that creates the problem. It is because in their fervor, the step-mother and village priest experience and spread fear and intolerance, which allows the evil of the spirit world to creep in and begin to push out both the good protections of the home spirits and the message of God’s love.
This book is a celebration of otherness and a reminder that when we condemn that or who we don’t understand, we are opening ourselves up to not just hate but loss of what could have been. We are the ones who lose when we shun or reject others. We are the ones who suffer, who lose ourselves, when we give into our fear. And if you think that’s too deep for a fairy tale, I suggest you go back to the “original” tales collected over the years. Fairy tales are meant to teach us things: how to be good, how to solve problems, how to survive when we have to go into the woods. And so this novel does. It is beautifully and lovingly written, full of incredible historical details and richly created characters. The time and place feel both of the past and of now, allowing Arden’s message to ring just as true today as it might have in Vasya’s 14th century Russian village. I highly recommend this book, both as an escape and as a temporary balm for our times.