The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The domovoi’s gaze wandered, and his mouth drooped open. “I am weak,”  he slurred. “And the wood-guard is weak. Our enemy has loosened his chain. Soon he will be free. I cannot keep him out.”

“Who is the enemy?”

“Appetite,” said the domovoi again. “Madness. Terror. He wants to eat the world.”

“How can I defeat it?” said Vasya urgently. “How may the house be protected?” (p. 203)

  1. The story opens with Dunya, nurse to the children of Marina Ivanovna and Pyotr Vladimirovich, telling a story that informs and runs beneath and loosely parallel to The Bear and the Nightingale: the story of little Marfa and Morozko, the demon Frost. There is just as much detail given about the family listening as there is to the tale, which is to say that the first chapter establishes setting, character, tone, and precedent thoroughly and skillfully.
  2. The second chapter uses the word boyar, and I kind of fell.
    1. I’d completely forgotten until I saw boyar but during my undergrad I took a course on early Russian history (which was SO COOL).
    2. And this is when the story is set, when the Rus’ are under Mongol rule – there isn’t a Russia yet, only a Rus’, referring to the Rus’ people.
    3. Boyar is basically the highest rank below prince (prince being what we now might call king or tsar). Vasilisa’s father is a boyar, albeit a not terribly important one whose domain is on the far edge of Rus’.
    4. ALSO AND RELATED although almost all the story takes place on Pyotr Vladimirovich’s lands in the middle of nowhere, there are sections in Moscow which include political machinations and reference to the Mongol overlords-from-afar, and as far as I could tell these were all wonderfully accurate. (The author’s note spells out the historical facts she changed and explains her choice in translation/transliteration of names and words.)
    5. Anyway, if you are a history geek, this is probably a good book for you.
  3. I have a few beefs with the official synopsis but on the other hand it let me to read this book and I liked it even if it wasn’t what the synopsis suggested.
  4. Vasilisa’s father isn’t the brute he sounds (eh, one’s wife’s dead, I’ll go get another): he remarries six years after Marina’s death, and only because he is repeatedly advised that Vasilisa needs a mother who will raise her properly.
  5. The section where we meet Anna Ivanova, the stepmother, is fascinating. You really do feel sorry for her and think it all might turn out okay.
  6. It doesn’t.
  7. Um, spoiler? But not really, if you’ve read the synopsis.
  8. Which does not (the synopsis, I mean) even mention the novel’s other and even more terrifying semi-ambivalent baddie, the priest Konstantin. You keep thinking he’ll maybe grow up and actually be good, but no. Like Anna, and in many ways like literature’s most terrifying villains, Konstantin really mostly believes that he is right and that what he’s doing is for everyone’s good. Ha. Ha. Ha.
  9. And there’s also the Ultimate Baddie. He’s kinda less frightening than Konstanin and Anna, in the way that Voldemort is less frightening than Umbridge. (Totally evil and freaky, but missing the nuance: he knows he’s evil and he’s cool with it; also, he doesn’t have legal and theoretically moral authority over our hero. I guess what I’m saying is someone who starts out as a person and heads directly into Lawful Evil is more alarming than Chaotic Evil that has always been Chaotic Evil and will always be Chaotic Evil.)
  10. Lots of beings from Russian folklore – the domovoi and the rusalka are the best known, I think – and Arden does interesting things with them that I rather liked.
  11. Also lots of sibling love, which I adored. Vasilisa’s siblings are by and large a tightly-knit group. We get their character development; we also get the huge hole their loss leaves in Vasilisa’s life, when her adult siblings grow up and leave home.
  12. Cool thing about siblings and Russian: there are about a million different ways to make an endearment or pet/nickname, and these names are used more commonly than their full names. Vasilisa, for instance, is also always Vasya. Sometimes more than one pet name is used for the same character on the same page, which I felt was super cool, very Russian, and also so true to sibling relationships. Sibling relationships and a sense of time/place were major strengths of this book.
  13. One odd thing was that some of it felt like an adult book. The narrative starts before Vasya’s birth, for one thing, and the focal perspective frequently skips away from Vasya to reveal the thoughts of adults, even adults she doesn’t know. (See point 2.4 on political machinations.) Sex is fairly frankly discussed – not explicitly, but as part of an attitude toward life that is very much taken for granted among certain (male) characters. Vasya is 14, maybe 15 at the end of the story, and her youth/childishness is repeatedly emphasized, but I don’t know that I would hand this to a teen younger than 17 unless I knew they were reading adult books already as a matter of course.
  14. That said, the many different adult perspectives were written deftly and gave nuance and development to far more characters and relationships than a narrative that focused solely on Vasya.
  15. There is a strong sense of the farming/hunting community, particularly the edge of desperation that a long winter brings to people whose existence is already precarious.
  16. Many Russian words are used. Some are defined in-text; others are not. I enjoyed this. If you don’t, there is a glossary at the end.
  17. Other reasons to read The Bear and the Nightingale: horse and rider relationship; all the mythology (did I mention how much I like the rusalka and the other guardian-spirits?); magic; an echo of Vasilisa the Fair; loving sibling relationships; loving half-sibling relationships; fear and fearlessness; belonging.
Favourite quotes

“It seems to me we did very well before you came; for if we prayed less, we also wept less.” (p. 139)

***

You have magic in your bones. You must reckon with it.

“Am I damned, then?” Vasya whispered, frightened.

I do not understand “damned.” You are. And because you are, you can walk where you will, into peace, oblivion, or pits of fire, but you will always choose. (p. 254)

***

“Are you really here?” Vasya asked.

“Sometimes,” answered the little man tranquilly. (p. 89)

***

“We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives.” (p. 303)

 

Alyosha stared at his sister. “You are mad, Vasya.”

She laughed, but the tears blurred her sight. “Entirely,” she said. “But I will have my freedom, Alyosha. […] Tell me truly, what is there for me here but walls and cages? I will be free, and I will not count the cost.”

Irina clung to her sister. “Don’t go, Vasya, don’t go. I will be good, I promise.”

“Look at me, Irinka,” said Vasya. “You are good. You are the best little girl I know. Much better than I am. But, little sister, you don’t think I am a witch. Others do.” (p. 310-311)

 

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