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Monday, October 16, 2017


Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fantasy (based on Russian fairy/folk tales)
Publisher:  Del Rey 
     The Bear and the Nightingale (6/2017)
     The Girl in the Tower (12/2017)

This first entry in my ongoing review of the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY begins with a brief overview of the series world-building followed by the publisher's blurb for The Bear and the Nightingale along with my review. I will add to this post as the remaining novels are published.

    The first thing you need to know is that Arden uses many Russian terms in her storytelling. Luckily for the reader, she includes a glossary to explain each one of them. Whenever I use any of those Russian words in this post, I will highlight it in orange. Whew, what a relief it was to find that glossary at the end of book one! 

     The series is set in the 14th century in northern Russia and focuses on the family of Pyotr Vladimirovich. Pyotr is a boyar—a member of the aristocracy  second in rank only to a prince—but he lives the same humble life style as his tenants. Arden includes extensive descriptions of the natural features of Pyotr's lands, particularly the forest, which is the favorite place for his youngest daughter, Vasilisa (aka Vasya) to wander. 

     Vasya is the heroine of the series—at least that is the case in the first novel, which follows her from her birth to her teen-age years. But Pyotr also provides a large group of richly developed secondary characters, both human and mythical/magical, with whom Vasya interacts. In fact, magic plays a major role in the series in the form of various creatures, including helpful spirits and guardians, evil demons, and even the dreaded upyry (Russian vampires). Although most of the villagers believe that these mythical creatures exist only in an invisible form, Vasya alone can actually see them and interact with them, a fact that she tries to keep hidden from her family and neighbors for fear of being labeled a witch.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd jobs imaginable from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont. For more information, click HERE to go to the "About" page on Arden's web site.

     Click HERE to read an online interview on the Unbound Worlds website in which Arden answers questions about Russian literature and The Bear and the Nightingale

                      NOVEL 1: The Bear and the Nightingale                   
   A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.

     At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

     After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout and city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

     And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

     As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.   

    The book begins in the depths of the Russian winter. Here is the opening sentence: "It was late winter in northern Rus', the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks' fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage." 

     As the family members huddle around the huge oven trying to keep warm, Dunya, the children's elderly nurse, tells them the tale of Frost, who is both an evil demon (called Morozko) and the god of death (called Karachun). Dunya's story is a folktale in which a villainous stepmother hates her husband's young daughter, Marfa, so much that she wishes her dead. After mistreating Marfa badly, the stepmother forces her husband to take Marfa deep into the snowy woods and leave her as an offering to Morozko, hoping that the girl will freeze to death. But Marfa charms Frost and he sends her home with many rich gifts. The stepmother is enraged and jealous so she insists that her husband take her own daughter, Liza, out into the woods and leave her in the snow, just as he did with Marfa. But Liza is rude to Frost so he leaves her to freeze to death. When the husband goes to retrieve Liza and brings back her frozen corpse, the wife drops dead with grief. This story comprises the entire first chapter, and you can be sure that it plays a huge part in the overall plot of the novel. You'll see it coming when Pyotr's wife, Marina, dies in childbirth early in the story only to be replaced a number of chapters later by a very unlikable stepmother.

     We soon learn that Vasya, the child who survived the birth that killed her mother, has inherited "the sight" from her mother's side of the family. In this rural, isolated countryside, people leave offerings of food and drink to the spirits or guardians of various places (for example, the hearth, the stable, the woods, the lake). But Vasya is the only one who can actually see those spirits and converse with them. By the time she realizes that people don't know who she is talking to when she speaks aloud to the spirits, most of the villagers believe that she is a witch (which, actually, she is). Vasya loves the forest and spends much of her childhood running off to talk with the spirits who live there, including the leshy (woodland spirit and protector of animals) and the rusalka (female water nymph).

     The story takes us through the seasons, with Arden providing enchanting descriptions of the natural changes of the land and life styles as the weather transitions from frigid to warm to hot and back to cold. She describes the many changes in the fields and forest as the years and the seasons pass and how those changes affect the lives of Pyotr Vladimirovich's family. 

     Arden divides the story into three parts. The first part introduces Pyotr's family, their complicated history, and the importance of the ancient spirits to the daily life of his people. Arden's realistic and touching descriptions of the interactions among the members of Pyotr's family are impressive, particularly the relationships among Vasya and her siblings: three brothers and a sister. Vasya's bond with her brother Alyosha is particularly close. Although they have their differences, they stand up for one another and have a deep familial bond.

     The second part adds complications to their peaceful life when Pyotr and his two oldest sons go off to Moscow, and he returns with a deeply unstable new wife named Anna. Soon thereafter, another new arrival adds even more turmoil: an arrogant new priest named Konstantin. Tension begins building as soon as they arrive when Anna immediately takes a deep dislike to Vasya. Then the priest begins to preach against the ancient spirits in emotional, hellfire-and-brimstone sermons calculated to frighten them into turning all of their attentions to the single God to whom he prays. Vasya refuses to join the other villagers in bowing only to Konstantin's God. She sees that the ancient spirits are fading away from neglect and that the crops are failing and the storms are destroying the land, so she speaks out against the priest's fear-mongering: "I am only a country girl...I have never seen...angels, or heard the voice of God. But I think you should be careful...that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing. We have never needed saving before."

     Meanwhile, deep in the forest, Frost learns that a demon that he bound a century ago has awakened and is on the verge of breaking free. In the final section of the book, magic plays a much bigger role as Arden accelerates the action, amps up the suspense, and resolves most of the conflicts. Although there are some light-hearted moments in the first two sections, it is in the final section that Arden adds several truly funny moments (mostly in the form of snarky dialogue) to the drama and violence of the major showdown that brings the book to a close.

     This book doesn't exactly have an HEA ending. It's not sad (well, except that a few characters don't make it through to the end), but for Vasya, it's more like a question mark—a what's-coming-next kind of ending.

     Arden does a magnificent job of weaving together Russian folklore with the everyday elements of life in feudal Russia. Her descriptive language allows the reader to feel the cold and the rain, to smell the earth in the spring and summer fields, and to hear the leaves blowing in the wind. Here is a lovely description of the coming of fall: "Fall came at last to lay cool fingers on the summer-dry grass; the light went from gold to gray and the clouds grew damp and soft."

     Also impressive are Arden's realistic and touching descriptions of the interactions among the members of Pyotr's family, particularly Vasya and her siblings, three brothers and a sister. Vasya's bond with her brother Alyosha is particularly close. Although they have their difference, they stand up for one another and have a deep familial bond.

     I confess that I am not a big fan of fairy-tale fantasies set in ancient times, but this book drew me in immediately with its fantastical plot, layered characters, and slowly building suspense. Vasya is a terrific heroine—an independent young women in a culture that does not reward free-thinking females.

     Click HERE to read excerpts on Arden's web site with comments from the author. Click HERE to read or listen to excerpts on the novel's page by clicking either on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. Click HERE for a reading guide to the novel on the publisher's web site.

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