The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy novel set in rural medieval Russia, and one of the best books to read during the winter.
It was the first book I read in 2017, and now it’s the first book I read in 2018 – its wintry atmosphere makes it the perfect book for the season.It feels like a dark fairytale, beautiful and magical, but not without its creepy aspects. Winter in Russia is not an easy season, and as an old threat rises due to the carelessness of men, so do the dead.
This book follows Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna and her family. She’s Pyotr Vladimirovich’s daughter, and she has the sight. She can see and speak with the chyerti (guardian spirits from Russian folklore), she can talks with horses, she has seen something terrible when she was a child exploring the wood. The Bear and the Nightingale is her story; you see her grow up, and you can’t not love her – she is a wild, magical girl living in a place where not conforming strictly to gender roles marks you as a witch. Everything gets worse when her devout stepmother and a new priest from Moscow come to the village.
The religious conflict is the heart of this book – because of Christianity, men are forgetting the old ways, leaving behind “paganism” and “fairytales”. They are not feeding the domovoi and the stables’ vazila. That makes them vulnerable to the monsters who live at the edge of the woods: upyry and something worse – the bear, who is Frost’s brother.
Frost himself is a significant character – he is Morozko, the winter king, the blue-eyed demon in the fairytale of Vasya’s childhood. I loved his scenes, and I hope to see more of him in The Girl in the Tower.
Other things I loved were the historical details and political intrigue. I want to see more of that too, and possibly also more of Vasya’s family. They were well-developed, but so were all the side characters, including the human antagonists (you understand them, even when you hate them) and Vasya’s animal companions. I mean, one of my favorite characters was a horse.
The writing was lovely – it wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be (yes, I always have this fear when it comes to historical fiction), and the atmosphere was perfect. This may be a slow-paced novel, but it’s also one of the very few books that managed to keep me awake at night during a reread because I didn’t want to stop. It’s that good.
I’ve heard that as a novel set in Russia written by an American author, this is very accurate (unlike… many others) but there is one thing that didn’t sit well with me. The author says this about the transliterations in the author’s note:
First, I sought to render Russian words in such a way as to retain a bit of their exotic flavor. This is the reason I rendered Константин as Konstantin rather than the more familiar Constantine, and Дмитрий as Dmitrii rather than Dmitri.
Look, I’m not Russian, so I don’t know how much of a big deal this is, but American authors: the “exotic flavor” isn’t a thing, and the word “exotic” is something you should delete from your vocabulary when you’re talking about people and cultures. It’s othering. Stop.
My rating: ★★★★¾