In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, Pytor hides the gift away and Vasya grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.
The Bear and The Nightingale is a beautiful, fairytale-like story set around 14th Century Russia. Inspired by many Russian folklore tales, specifically the story of Morozko the Frost King, it follows the life of Vasya. It’s a story of family, the rising of orthodox Christianity in a pagan land that still worships household spirits, sacrifice, and wild untameable girls. The Bear and the Nightingale perfectly weaves fairytale into reality, incorporating traditional Slavic spirits – such as the household protective spirit, the domovoi – with harsh Russian winters and the day to day life of a family living by the forest in Northern Russia in the Middle Ages.
A quick summary of the book – Vasya is born to Marina and Pyotr, and Marina predicts that Vasya will be different, as her mother was (a woman who many believed to be dabbling in witchcraft). Marina dies giving birth to Vasya, but pleas with Pyotr to protect her, telling him that she is special. The years pass, and Pyotr travels to Moscow to find a husband for his eldest daughter Olga, and a new wife for himself. When leaving the city, a stranger threatens Pyotr’s son, and in exchange for his life, bids Pyotr to give his youngest daughter (Vasya) a necklace embedded with a precious jewel. Pyotr is unwilling, and gives the necklace to the household maid, Dunya, to gift Vasya with. Dunya recognises the necklace for what it is – a gift from the Frost King Morozko – and pleads with him to let her keep the necklace safe until Vasya is grown.
Meanwhile, the Priest Konstantin arrives in Vasya’s village. Anna, her stepmother, tells the Priest that she sees demons everywhere, and Konstantin makes it his mission to rid the village of their pagan ways. In turn, Vasya discovers that she must protect these demons – actually the Russian protective spirits of the household, horses etc – in order to protect her family. As Vasya grows into a young woman, Konstantin is constantly tempted by her, whilst at the same time believing her to be a witch. What follows is a battle against darker forces than either Vasya or Konstantin expected to be up against, in the dark Russian midwinter.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book – I’ve always been a huge fan of Russian folklore and modern day novels inspired by it, and this book introduced me to a traditional Russian tale that I haven’t come across before. Vasya was the perfect main character – she was elusive, brave and plucky, and as wild as the author made her out to be. In my opinion, the balance between mythology and reality was absolutely perfect; the two were expertly blended and neither felt as though it was overpowering the other. I enjoyed the relationship between Konstantin and Vasya – the way that he was drawn to her whilst at the same time almost repulsed by her, and the way she constantly felt the need to protect him even though she believed that he would cause the downfall of her village and her people. This was such a complex, magical book, and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you enjoy Russian mythology or similar slow-building fantasy novels (for example, Uprooted by Naomi Novik).