The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden
Random House Publishing Group, 2017

Vasilisa Petrovna is an unremarkable child, except for one thing: her gift of ‘second sight’, inherited from her mother and grandmother. Vasya can see things, the spirits that surround her home and barn, the keepers of the water, the woods, and the road, that others cannot. She speaks to them and they honor her friendship. Her mother died bearing her, but eventually her father remarries and his new wife, Anna Ivanova, also possesses the ability to see.

But when Anna comes to live with them things begin to change because, unlike Vasya, Anna’s ability fills her with fear. She sees all the spirits as demons, evil and unwelcome. She enlists a priest to help her convince the village people of their sin in providing offerings to these demons, and he succeeds in scaring the people into ending their observance of other gods. But as the offerings decrease and the feeling of fear increases, events are set in motion in a world unseen by all except Vasya and Anna that have dire consequences for everyone. Vasya must decide where her loyalty lies and find the strength to embrace her calling and protect the entire village from a terrible danger that threatens them all.

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This book has very high ratings on Amazon and Goodreads, and for good reason. It’s a mystical, magical, fairy tale type of story that is completely engrossing. Vasilisa Petrovna is smart and brave and unlike other literary heroines in that her interest in romance could not be less. She is very practical in her view of a girl’s prospects in that day and age and she knows that her options are to enter a convent or marry and be her husband’s property for the rest of her life. Neither of those options seems acceptable to her, and there is no happily ever after at the close of this book, but the ending still feels natural and satisfying after the journey she goes on throughout the story.

The one thing I objected to was the way the church was portrayed. Religious leaders were depicted as hypocritical and insensitive. The different spirits from fairy tales that this story is based off of seemed to be more powerful than God, whose presence and interference were pretty much nonexistent. I have no way of knowing if that was the authors intention or if she was just choosing to focus on the Russian superstition and folklore angle of the story, which was certainly fascinating. I can’t imagine the amount of research that went into crafting this story, if it is at all accurate. But that aspect of it was a little disappointing for me as a Christian.

All said, I would recommend this book to friends and family. I love a good fairy tale and this one had many of those elements while still managing to possess a unique tone. The Bear and the Nightingale is definitely impressive as a debut novel.

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