The Bear and the Nightingale | Thoughts
This story is a magical step into a winter fairy-tale. The Russian inspiration was a breath of fresh air amidst all of the Arabian themes in the last couple years. Don't get me wrong, I'm still loving those Arabian themes, but it was one of those instances where I didn't realize I'd been craving something new and different until I had it in front of me.
Filled with words and creatures I haven't yet come across, The Bear and the Nightingale is a look into the far north of Rus', where the new God of Christianity competes for attention with the old faiths, and people remember to respect their hearth-spirits at the same time they pray to God in church. Magic is believed in while not openly discussed, a sort of unspoken agreement by the people that the old ways run deep in the veins of the wood. Rusalkas and vazilas and domovois...all the chyerti were spirits I was fascinated by. While not seen by the people, they are none-the-less respected, and fires stay warm in the winter under the tending of the domovoi; horses stay calm with the vazila to ease them.
The forest of Lesnaya Zemlya was the first place that put me in mind of the living, breathing forest in Uprooted, a place so steeped in magic I was swept away by it. Vasya is such a girl as Agnieszka, a creature just as wild as the forest in which she was born. When an inspired priest is sent from the city of Moscow to fill an opening, his discontent at being located so far from civilized company is quickly replaced by the purpose he finds in "saving" the heathens of the north. Vasya's stepmother is the only other in the village with the sight, capable of seeing the spirits that scamper about everywhere in Lesnaya Zemlya, though she is none too glad of it. With the arrival of Konstantin, she clings to the hope that he will help cleanse her village of the demons that torment her, feeding in to the fear that he spreads with every word.
Vasya is the only one to see the truth of how neglecting the old ways is causing them to suffer, and it pushes her even more to the outside of her family and her village. In this, we have the typical one girl who will save them all theme, but it never feels overbearing. Vasya tends to the dwindling chyerti out of compassion and kindness, not wishing to see them suffer. She fights against Konstantin in the same way she has fought her entire young life against anyone who would try to tell her what she should be doing, who she should be becoming. She sees the changes in her people simply; never have they cried so much or been so afraid. If they had been sinners before by keeping the old faiths, they were sinners who laughed freely and knew joy.
"'I think you should be careful, Batyushka, that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing. We have never needed saving before.'"
It is important to note that while one of the antagonists of this tale is a priest of God, it is not Christianity itself. Rather, the religion is wielded through the corrupted hands of one who acts for his own gain. Konstantin immediately sees something that fascinates him in Vasya; fascinates and terrifies him. Here is a girl child who is wild like no one he has ever met, a soul he is unable to sway with his charisma. And so his task becomes not just spreading the word of God, but ensuring that everything that makes Vasya so fascinating to him is stamped out. I think faith is a fine line to walk, especially when the mission of simply spreading the word and letting souls find their own path blurs with forcing them down the path of your choosing. As Vasya says, they have never needed saving before, and the fear he spreads as a means to his end is destroying them.
"'It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God's name. I leave it to you...However, Batyushka, I am not afraid.'"
One of the things I liked most about Vasya is how she did not seem to realize she was different, at least not at first. Taking care of the forest and everything living in and around it is just what is done, a mutual understanding that for her people to thrive, so must the forest.
"Sometimes it worried Vasya that they never found her. All she had to do was flatten herself against the side of a stall and then duck around the horse and flee, and the groom would never even look up."
Her connection with horses after she befriends the vazila sealed the deal for me; I was officially a fan after that. And once Solovey is introduced...*happy sigh* But no spoilers in this review. Suffice to say that bears and nightingales, snowdrops and horses, and brothers and demons are all woven together in a rich tapestry of magic and folklore that had me forgetting where I was.
"Will you tell her? asked the mare. 'Everything?" the demon said. 'Of bears and sorcerers, spells made of sapphire and a witch that lost her daughter? No, of course not. I shall tell her as little as possible. And hope that it is enough.'"
Morozko did indeed tell us as little as possible, though somehow the lingering mystery around everything that transpired lends to the magic of the winter wood.
I will say that this started slow, and did not truly pick up for me until around the aforementioned connection with the vazila. It is told in third-person omniscient, not my favorite for the simple reason that usually I find it hard to connect to any one character when the inner thoughts of all characters are mingled on the same page. If the POVs are split into specific limited omniscient chapters, it is easier going. So, the narration style causes difficulty in developing an emotional connection to any of the characters for the first third of the story, and even though we are aware that Vasya is the main character, her perspective is limited until about halfway through.
Though slow in the beginning, I knew instantly I would enjoy the writing if nothing else.
Katherine Arden weaves magic into the setting with every description, her imagery lush and beautiful.
"A light came into the boy's face. Pyotr's mouth tightened. Marina was bone in the unyielding earth, but he had seen her look just that way, when her soul lit her face like firelight."
"When her soul lit her face like firelight." *dreamy sigh* I like my stories with magic in the tale, and magic in the writing, and Arden accomplishes both.
And now, a picture of a horse, for the nightingale. <3