Date: January 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
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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, 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.
I was really interested in reading The Bear and the Nightingale after it seeing it suggested for fans of Uprooted, one of my favorite books. In the end, I found this is hard to rate given that it was very good in some places and less so in others.
The first quarter I didn’t care for. I’ve never really enjoyed things with a hungry and cold atmosphere and have had trouble with other books set in Russia. I feel like one of the few people who didn’t like The Bronze Horseman. At the start the characters feel pretty remote, closer to fairy-tale stock characters than real people. I did end up invested in the protagonist, Vasya, by the mid-point. But she isn’t surrounded by much in the way of good side characters. Most are unlikable or forgettable. I get really into side characters, sometimes they are my favorite part of the story. The side characters in Uprooted felt more fleshed-out and real to me. There are a few here, but I’d have liked more. There also aren’t many interesting females beyond Vasya.
The second quarter became more interesting with the inclusion of faery-type beings that bear close resemblance to hobgoblins, water sprites, and various other genii loci. I love these entities in stories and they were really well done! There are many here and I enjoyed their scenes and their relevance to the plot. It was practically screaming “Brian Froud Illustrated Edition!” at me. It would make a beautiful story book.
It’s at the 65%-100% passage that I really thought this was great.
If the whole book had managed to be as good I’d give it five stars. Imagine Agnieszka from Uprooted living north of the wall with the White Walkers and you get an idea for the level of creepiness, danger, and excitement that sets in! If you don’t mind what equates to a lot of world building and set up to get to that stage, and you happen to love nature spirits and witches, then I definitely think this is worth a read. Many people won’t have any of the issues that I did and will give it a much higher rating, which it may deserve, but my personal feelings towards it don’t stack up high enough against other similar stories I adore.
That said, this is a debut novel with an ending that felt like a new beginning, if the story were to be continued I’d definitely read to see where things go.