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, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…
I loved this book. Honestly, I was a bit hesitant to begin with as it’s the first book in a trilogy that has so much hype but the writing and atmosphere pulled me in really quickly. The first part is a lot slower paced than I was expecting but it’s never not interesting and all of the family dynamics and the background political rumblings it sets up come into play later on. Spending the time with the characters and their relationships to begin with allowed them time to grow and really deepen. Vasya’s relationship with her older brother Alyosha (who is closest to her in age) was especially great and relatable as while he didn’t necessarily believe in the stories and magic, he believed in his sister.
The Bear and the Nightingale is set in a medieval Russia where the folktales, magic and old religions are real but most people treat them as superstitions. Vasya though, has always been able to see the creatures and spirits that protect her home and the surrounding countryside while others could not. She talks to them and they talk back and as she grows older, they teach her things while she learns to keep what she can see and sense a secret because the villagers may call her a witch.
I really liked how the old religions came into conflict with the “new” religion when Konstantin, a Christian priest, arrives and starts to push the word of God. He is a character I loved to hate. Though there was the odd moment where he was so pathetic that he became almost sympathetic, he was so frustratingly righteous and stubborn that I relished in every moment where things did not go his way. He’s almost unwanted obsession with Vasya as she becomes a young woman was uncomfortable at times and their verbal sparring battles just made me like Vaya more.
Vasya is a wonderful character. The Bear and the Nightingale follows her from her birth until she is a teenager and you see from the outset, she’s been a wild child who doesn’t often do what’s expected of a girl her age. This does make her come into conflict with her family, especially her father, who wants to protect her, and her stepmother, who can’t stand her actions most of the time. Vasya can make impulsive decisions but she’s very loyal and caring and as she respects the creatures and guardians from tales, she can tell when bad things are about to happen and do her best to prepare her family for it.
The writing in The Bear and the Nightingale is excellent and often painted a vivid picture of the cold, harsh world Vasya grows up in and all the creatures are larger than life. I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long and while I’m not usually a seasonal mood reader, I’m glad I picked it up during winter when it’s cold and dark and frosty as it really added to the reading experience.
I really enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so enthralled by a story and I’m looking forward to continuing on with the trilogy. 5/5.