After my last, super-dense read, I was in the mood for a lighter fantasy novel. While searching my shelves for the perfect match, I stumbled across The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I picked this book up last year on the recommendation of basically everyone I watch on BookTube. The story is based on Russian folklore, and set during a harsh, icy winter. As I love fairy tale retellings and am currently living through the harshest winter of my life, I figured that now was the perfect time to give it a try. I went into my reading hoping to get lost in a magical tale and hopefully find a new favorite.
The plot is set in medieval Russia and follows Vasilisa, a young girl living in a small, isolated settlement in the wilderness with her father and siblings. Her mother died giving birth to her, so she has mostly been raised by her older sister Olga and her elderly nurse Dunya while her father, leader of their village, handles his many responsibilities. As the novel begins, Vasilisa has spent most of her childhood exploring the woods around her home, sneaking freshly baked cakes from the kitchen, and listening to Dunya tell old fairy tales around the oven at night. Her family is Christian, but they still pay homage to the old gods, leaving little sacrifices around their hearth for the spirits that keep their house safe.
Vasilisa has always been a bit different from her brothers and sisters. She's a little more mischievous, a little more wild, and seems to have an otherworldly quality about her that she inherited from her late mother, a woman with a mysterious (and some say magical) past. As she begins to grow into womanhood, Vasilisa's father decides to remarry. He is hopeful that having another woman in the house to guide his youngest daughter will help her shed some of her wildness and improve her chances of finding a husband. The woman he settles on, however, ends up bringing nothing but trouble to his family.
This new wife, a devout Christian, is determined to turn Vasilisa into a proper woman or send her to a convent, and her methods become increasingly aggressive as time goes on. She also insists that the family stop paying tribute to the old gods, an act with bigger consequences than anyone imagines. Soon, things out of fairy tales start becoming real before Vasilisa's eyes. An old evil has been waiting in the woods for a chance to rise again, and now that the old gods' influence has been weakened, he has an opportunity to strike. Vasilisa, with her strange connection to this spirit world, is the only one able to see what is happening to her family and her town, and she must break all the bounds of convention to try and stop it.
I did end up liking this novel, but it took me a little while to get into it. I'm used to devouring stories like this in just a few days, and that wasn't the case here. I'm not sure why it didn't click with me right away. It has literally all of the things I love in a fantasy novel - deep connections to old folklore, detailed, beautiful writing, and an independent, interesting heroine that you want to root for. I think it might be because the story is so dark and so heavy. Medieval Russia in the middle of an unusually harsh winter is a bleak setting, and Katherine Arden does such a good job describing it that the story often felt quite gloomy and oppressive. The plot was similarly dark, with misfortunes and disappointments happening on many of its pages. It was a good read, but not a light or fun read.
Once I got used to the dark tone and heavy writing though, I enjoyed it. The story was consistently interesting, if a bit slow in parts, and I was engaged enough in what was happening to want to know the end. As Vasilisa is a young girl for most of this novel, romance wasn't a big element throughout a lot of the story, and I missed that. Fairy tales and romance belong together (for me, at least). I wish the story had been centered more on her as a young woman so that the romance that does eventually show up would have had a longer time to develop. This is the first book in a trilogy though, so I suppose there will be more chances for that in subsequent books. I already own the other two novels in the series, so I'm going to continue on with them and see if I like them any better than the first.
Aside from my bland, in-the-middle kind of thoughts here, I don't have much more to say about The Bear and the Nightingale. It was good, but not great for me. I'm disappointed that I didn't love it, but it's still a worthwhile read for those that are into fairy tale-style fantasy. This one will most likely land in my donate pile, but I'm not sorry I read it.