Especially by her father's new wife, Anna. Every story needs its central point of conflict and the stepmother is an old classic. But what if the stepmother isn't evil but scared? Seeing daemons that no one else can see has left Anna shaken; only the villages small church gives comfort. A young priest sees Anna's fear and with it sees his own path to greatness. Sermons gain brimstone and fire and the old ways come under attack. Villagers who once left bread crumbs for creatures of the old stories become more fearful of the vengeful god Konstintine preaches. And fear only grows as the already tough winter starts to bite harder. As the village starts to look with suspicion at the strange girl in their midst Vasha will find herself face to face with two brothers known only in the old stories.
This is a seemingly simple story with a lot of depth. At times it seems to be Vasha vs the world but despite her 'strangeness' she is never short of allies. Nor is it purely a Christianity vs Pagan story as clearly both have power in Arden's version of Russia. It is also not a traditional 'retelling' as it mashes multiple folk tales into a defined historical context. What it is is a strong, original telling of a special girl and her journey between two competing worlds.
There is a lot to love here. Fans of Juliet Marillier should be happy with this debut and not just because of the folk tale influence. In fact when it comes to the prose and imagery The Bear and the Nightingale is probably a step above. This is probably also a good book for fans of Gaiman's as it deals with a battle between old and new beliefs in a much tighter and smaller focused way. The story is very polished and smartly leaves behind several years in chunks when appropriate. Most importantly the author weaves in the folk tale aspects but makes Vasha's Russia her own. For this The Bear and the Nightingale is worth a strong recommendation.
But it is not a perfect book. A strong character study it is not. Perhaps the most disappointing thing is Vasha's path is mostly laid out for her despite her fight against a predetermined path being her major drive in the book. With a few exceptions other characters fit an archetype (beloved tutor, firebrand preacher) rather than act as full characters. Anna showed a bit more depth than evil stepmother as she fights her own daemons (pun maybe intended) but often it was hard to remember she is more than her spiteful side. Of course this may be a losing battle as the characters are literally competing with the entities of Frost and Death and fairy tales for page space but it makes connecting with characters rather tough.
Overall a strong debut. With a unique voice and beautiful setting this may be a book with some staying power. More importantly Katherine Arden has set herself up as an author to keep an eye on.
Copy for review provided by publisher.