Dawn of the Witch: A Review of The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

European folklore has always been a major inspiration for modern fantasy, but there is something special about the folklore from Eastern Europe and Russia.  Cold winters and dark forests have proved to be a fertile breeding ground for all manner of fireside tales.  Baba Yaga roams the woods, flying on her pestle or controlling her house walking on chicken legs.  Chernobog haunts both nightmares and Disney movies, making an unforgettable appearance in Fantasia.  The land can be cold and inhospitable, but this same land brought us the domovoi, guardian of the hearth, and the vazilda, guardian of horses.  The land can be cold, but the one who inhabit it can be very warm.

Katherine Arden is the author of The Bear and the Nightingale, her first novel and first book in the Winternight Trilogy.  In high school, Arden spent a year living and studying in France.  Not long after, Arden deferred college for a year to live in Moscow, and her time there can be seen in the pages on this book.  She then went on to study both French and Russian literature in college before graduating and moving to Maui, where she worked what appears to be every odd job imaginable.  So many authors need time to discover the stories they are capable of telling.  Sometimes a little life is necessary before writing that first page.  The Bear and the Nightingale also manages to avoid feeling like a first novel.  It is not over long, it does not try to include every plot possible, and the main character appears fully realized.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in European Russia, apparently during the 14th century when most of Asian and Easter Europe was under the control of the Golden Horde.  The exact time is difficult to pinpoint as the book does not specify, but there is a brief conversation about a possible revolution in a moment of foreshadowing.  The Eastern Orthodox Church is on the rise after splitting from the Catholic Church and is spreading throughout Russia, though its hold is far from solid.  Many people still worship the old, secular, and pagan faiths, but those religions slowly disappear before the spread of the organized church.  This is time when Russians still remembered the chyerti, the spirits of forest and home, but the people are beginning to forget.  While there is a brief trip to Moscow about a third of the way through the novel, most of the action takes place north of the city, in a small forested village nestled in the wilderness.

Our heroine is Vasilia Petrovna, or Vasya for short.  The novel is entirely told in the third-person point-of-view, and follows Vasilia for the most part.  There are occasional dips into the viewpoints of other characters, particularly that of her father and the village’s new priest.  Vasilia is born in the northern village of Lesnaya Zemlya, and she never knew her mother, who died in childbirth.  From a young age, it is apparent that Vasilia is different.  She is more at home in the woods than in her own house, and often talks to herself or believes the fairy tales her caretaker tells.  To others, she is a weird, wild child.  But we see the truth.  Vasilia can see and speak with the spirits that live alongside the villagers.  She visits the spirits in the forest and feeds the caretaker of horses.  From an early point in the novel, it is clear that Vasilia belongs in the wild and is not meant for the societal cages built for women in the 14th century.  She is rebellious and defiant, resourceful and wise, and is eventually targeted for her refusal to abandon the wild.

While Vasilia is our main character, the book also follows several major side characters, including most of her family.  Vasilia’s two older brothers, Kolya and Sasha, as well as her older sister, Olga, play large roles in the opening of the book but mostly disappear from the action as they grow up and move away from home.  However, one of the constants in Vasilia’s life is Dunya, her caretaker, who also helped raise her mother.  Pyotr Vladimirovich is Vasilia’s father and the boyar, or lord, of Lesnaya Zemlya.  The book moves into his POV more than any other side character, and the opening of the novel follows him exclusively before Vasilia is old enough to carry her own story.  Alyosha is her youngest older brother and the one she is closest to, believing in her when no one else does.  There is Anna Ivanova, her step-mother, driven mad by her ability to see spirits.  There are the brothers Morozko and Medved, Winter and the Bear, powerful spirits who drive the supernatural storyline and each approach Vasilia for very different reasons.  With this cast of characters, The Bear and the Nightingale balances the human and fantastical elements.

Religion plays a large role in the story, both the organized religion of Christianity and the traditional folkloric religion of Easter Europe.  Over the course of the novel, we see Christianity spread farther north than ever before in the form of Father Konstantin.  Before Konstantin’s arrival, Lesnaya Zemlya did have a local priest, but he appeared to only go through the motions and did not force his beliefs on the populace.  Konstantin arrives, exiled from Moscow for becoming too popular among the lower class, and brings fire-and-brimstone with him.  He is a true believer, a charismatic orator, and a painter of beautiful icons.  Despite his outward piety, Konstantin views people as an annoyance in his way to saving their immortal souls.  Through him, organized religion is portrayed as a bringing of fear and a force eliminating the traditional ways that preceded it.  Through Konstantin’s presence and religion, fear spreads, resolve weakens, and Lesnaya Zemlya becomes a hunting ground for malevolent forces.  As people forget the protector spirits, evil spirits gain power where once they had none.

The Bear and the Nightingale is only the beginning of the Winternight Triology.  The second and third books, The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch, are already published and available.  Over the course of this first novel, Vasilia grows into herself, but does not quite grow up.  The book does not specify, but it appears she is only a teenager at this point.  The Bear and the Nightingale is only the beginning in her journey, and I plan on following on following every step of that journey.

The Bear and the Nightingale can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden

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