“Tell the story of Frost, Dunyashka. Tell us of the frost-demon, the winter-king Karachun.”
Read in December 2019
As you may already know, I’m fond of seasonal reading, for instance, I often do projects on October with Halloween reads and so, I am currently committed to reading Wintery or Christmassy books. This is how, two years after having shelved The Bear and the Nightingale on my TBR, that I’m finally reading it. The cover itself gave me the winter vibe so bad, with the snowy night and the cabin in the forest. Reading the synopsis (and the first chapter), I mistakenly thought that this book would be a collection of Russian short stories and fairy tales. Therefore, I was surprised that it actually had a plot and characters outside. In fact, there is only one short tale at the beginning and then the whole story is a tale, a love letter to Slavic folklore, which I know close to nothing about so it was a refreshing experience. And Vasilisa’s story caught me off guard but definitely in a good way.
The story takes place on the edge of the Russian wilderness during the Middle Ages. On this land known for its harsh winters, surrounded by superstitions and old spirits, Marina is giving birth to a daughter, Vasilisa. And while the girl takes her first breath, the woman takes her last. Marina knew that the pregnancy was risky and that she probably wouldn’t survive it. But also knew that it would be a special child, the only one of her children gifted with the magical abilities that ran in the bloodline, the first one since her own mother. After Marina’s death, Vasilisa Petrovna and her siblings are raised by her mother’s nursemaid, Dunya, nurtured by her stories of frost-demon and winter-king, and lost maidens. She grows up to be a curious soul and a wild spirit, conversing with spirits that no one else seems to see, hanging out in the woods and refusing to become what is expected from her, a ‘proper lady’.
“Before the end, you will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, die by your own choosing, and weep for a nightingale.”
In order to put Vasilisa back on tracks, her father, Pyotr Vladimirovich, choose to re-marry, and surprisingly, his new bride seems to see the spirits as well. She thinks they are apparitions from the Devil and shortly after her arrival an ambitious and good-looking priest comes to evangelize the village. But on the lands ruled Pyotr an evil force is slowly awakening in the forest. The villagers, that used leave offering to the spirits in exchange from their protection, are turning away from their old ways and therefore neglecting and forgetting those spirits. As a result, they are growing weaker and weaker, especially during long winter times, with food shortages and famine, and their protection is fading. Vasilisa is the only one left fighting for the spirits, trying to feed them in secret, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.
Vasilisa was an interesting character, I really enjoyed reading about her but I often felt so sorry for her. How she had to hide the fact that she could see what others couldn’t was so sad. It was interesting to read about her caught in the middle of the change from the pagan ways to the Christian ways, being called a witch because she was different. But also refusing to walk the path that was traced for her. Married or lock away in a convent? Thanks, but no thanks. The message ‘that girl can be anything they want’ to be is timeless and something I always love to read about. I also adore that she had no apparent love interest throughout this book because she is so strong that she doesn’t need anyone restraining her free spirit. Because how accurate is the sentence “Wild birds die in cages.”?
“We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives.”
First-of-all, I went on a couple of own-voices reviews for this book, and all of them seemed to agree on the fact that Katherine Arden handled the topics well and that she did a tremendous job at researches before writing this book (you can check Nastassja’s for instance, she also gives plenty of advice to help you apprehend this reading experience). I honestly can’t believe this is a debut novel, the writing style is gorgeous and lush and the prose so lyrical and magical. I was drawn into the story, the dark and scary atmosphere was perfectly perceptible, I’m so happy that I chose to read this in winter because it felt right. I felt cold, I felt terrified and it was a sign that the author did a good job.
However, I don’t know what to think about the fact that there will be a second book, I was pretty content with the ending and I don’t feel like a sequel was needed. I really thought that it was supposed to be a standalone and it just bugs me when standalones are turned into series. Overall in found the pacing often too slow, and even though I was mesmerized by the folklore, the story felt mostly passive and not much action happened. I think that the thing that lost me the most in the book is all the names and several different diminutives and nicknames for just one person, that sometimes weren’t even close to the actual name. Most of the time I couldn’t understand who’s the chapter was about and that definitely made my reading less enjoyable. Also, I don’t really enjoy books where religion has a predominant place, and it definitely bothered me in The Bear and the Nightingale. Last but not least, I’m a bit disappointed with the ‘villains’, I found them very one-dimensional and couldn’t care for them.
Have you read or will you read this book?
What did you think about it?