Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairy Tales, Fantasy
An eerie, whimsical winter fairytale.
❝ There was a time, not long ago
When flowers grew all year
When days were long
And nights star-strewn
And men lived free from fear ❞
Once upon a time, on the fringes of Russian wilderness, in a land of harsh winters wavering between superstition and the observance of the old spirits and demons and Christianity, a peculiar girl was born. She was untamed, fey, a cacophony. She could see and converse with sprites, she talked to horses, spent her days in the forest, and she was content until a fiery, gold-haired priest determined to instill the fear of God arrived in The Land of The Forest. As the offerings to the old ones were reduced, and fear gnawed at people's hearts, an ancient evil force was slowly awakening in the woods. A force beckoning to Vasya, calling for her blood. The blood of the witch. Is Vasya alone strong enough to defeat it, while her family turns against her, and her people blame her for their misfortunes? When famine strikes and the dead awaken, she will find the answer.
❝ But seasons turn
The wind blows from the south
The fires come, the storms, the spears
The sorrow and the dark ❞
The Bear and the Nightingale is not a perfect book. The pacing is slow, and sometimes I found myself losing track of the narration, as if it was something liquid slipping from my fingers. There is, though, a certain quality in it that manages to invade your senses. It is a read not meant for hot days under the sun, or sweet spring afternoons with a light breeze caressing your skin. No, it's a read for frosty winter nights, with a crackling fire and the wind howling, making your blood chill and your skin shiver. The Bear and the Nightingale is a vial containing the fresh scent of pines and warm honey-bread, burning incense and the crispy feel of winter winds. It's a portrait of a landscape covered in snowflakes, bordering on evil woods and the domain of the Winter King who steals maidens he showers with a prince's ransom, if he doesn't freeze them to death. It is an atmospheric, haunting tale drawing on Slavic folklore and myths, touching the subject of witchcraft and the inevitable clash between the gods of old times and christian doctrines and in the center of them all is a girl who does not wish to follow the path society has predetermined for her: marry or join a convent.
❝Wild birds die in cages.❞
What I admired the most about Katherine Arden's writing was the chilling ambience she created and the portayal of the chyerti, the little spirits or demons that are tied to households, animals, nature. There was something genuine and nostalgic in the way she described them, in the blurry lines between sin and redemption, and the answer to what is right and what is wrong lies somewhere in the middle. The same thing applies to her characters. As Vasya grows up, she is surrounded by many people, the storytelling nursemaid, the half-mad, pious step-mother, the angelic priest that preaches perdition, the family that loves but does not quite understand her. All of them play an important role in shaping Vasya's personality, with their obsessions, their tenderness and their cruelty. The wilderness in her was endearing, especially given that her intentions were pure and she kept saving everyone only to be branded as a heretic and a demon.
❝We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives.❞
The Bear and the Nightingale is a story that plays its mournful tune and tugs at your soul with light touches, but affects you nonetheless.