End Date: April 29th
Author: Katherine Arden
Pages: 336 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“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 the 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 and 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.”
I loved this book! I mean… you guys! I loved this book!!!!!
Okay, for the sake of transparency I will say that this was my selection, which you would think would mean I’d be more prone to like it than not… but I’m actually typically much harder on my own picks than those books selected by the other Ladies. I’ll also add that I began this book fairly late, giving myself only a week to complete it – but the imagery was so lovely, the story so well-written and imaginative, and the characters so engaging that I actually ended up finishing the whole thing in two days.
She looked like a wild thing new-caught and just barely groomed into submission.
With the exception of the tales surrounding Baba Yaga, Russian folklore is pretty much a complete unknown to me, but The Bear and the Nightingale has definitely peaked my interest in Slavic folktales and traditions. If you’re already familiar with the tale on which this particular story was based, Arden’s retelling can certainly do nothing but add to its meaning and beauty; for those as unfamiliar with it as I was prior to reading this particular book, I can say that this will leave an impression on you that you will not soon forget.
“I have never seen Tsargrad, or angels, or heard the voice of God. But I think you should be careful, Batyushka, that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing. We have never needed saving before.”
The tale’s setting and scenery play some of the largest roles in the overall story. To begin with, Vasya is born during the medieval period, when Christianity had managed to secure a choke-hold on most urban districts – Moscow included – but had not yet managed to destroy and vilify the traditional folk beliefs and superstitions still prevalent in the villages and towns spread across the vast countryside. The imagery is its most powerful when moving from location to location: the soulless buildings and pretentious people of the busy, bustling city are a stark contrast to the vivid, vibrant, wild land Vasya herself calls home; the familiar forest with its lush greenery and clear rivers is entirely separate from the cold, dark, frozen woods that serve as the realm of both the Bear and his brother, the dreaded Winter King. Arden’s vision was so clearly laid out that I even began to associate each location within the tale with specific colors: Moscow was all in monochrome, while Lesnaya Zemlya was blazing amber and vivid crimson; the forest surrounding the village was brilliant greens and earthy browns, while the winter woods were blinding white and icy blues.
“My people,” said Vasya, very low. They wept before the icons while the domovoi starved. I do not know them. They have changed and I have not.
But the trick Arden successfully manages to pull off is that she puts you there – plops you right down into a country divided by religion, war, and class structure – and then paints her story around you, effectively and immediately making you a part of this place and these people. We have our own problems, sure, but we don’t know what it’s like to fear the Mongol hordes, nor do most of us have to break our backs working from sunup to sundown from Spring to Autumn just so we can have some sort of fighting chance of surviving Winter. But Arden doesn’t dwell on the differences of Then & There versus Here & Now to lend that extra flair of magic to her fairy tale. Instead, we experience each season and moment with Vasya and her family – no matter where or when we live, we all can understand on some level the biting ache of bitter cold, the sweet solace of a quiet meadow, the gnawing pangs of hunger, the safe comfort of loving and being loved, the terrible burden of guilt, the excitement of victory, the sinking feeling of despair. And that’s the real magic of this story – that the magic itself is made to feel so familiar, so commonplace. It is a part of Vasya, it is who she is and how she is, and she knows no other way of being or seeing the world.
“Fear is first, then fire, then famine. He made your people afraid. And then the fires burned, and now the sun scorches. You will be hungry when the cold comes.”
But make no mistake: this is a story about magic. In the midst of this fascinating period, unnoticed within this fledgling empire, a mysterious and beautiful woman brimming with old magic walks out of a dark wood, into a bustling metropolis, and marries a prince. Her lovely daughter lives a fairly ordinary life but willingly sacrifices herself in an attempt to salvage the dwindling magic of her lineage. And her plain and seemingly unremarkable granddaughter heeds the advice of horses, passes time with the children of the river, breaks bread with the spirit of her home, and follows the path that leads to a realm which exists between Awake and Dreaming.
“Before the end, you will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, die by your own choosing, and weep for a nightingale.”
I loved the twists Arden took when developing her characters, as well. Our protagonist, surrounded by the fantastic as she is, is surprisingly down-to-earth. Vasya approaches life with wide-eyed wonderment and an open mind, which is helpful considering animals tend to talk around her and strange creatures appear at random whenever she’s nearby, but she is also logical, intelligent, and reasonably level-headed. Rather than being the great beauty one might expect from the heroine of a fantasy novel, Vasya is, by default, everything a woman of medieval Russia shouldn’t be: tall, dark, awkward, opinionated, stubborn, tomboyish, brash, and unbiddable. The supporting characters, meanwhile, serve to keep us grounded in the reality of that time period: Vasya is set apart, free to be as she is, while her father struggles to conform to the expectations of his station, her brothers take up arms for family or God, and her elder sister submits to one of the two choices available to women – the yoke of arranged marriage (the other option being the convent).
“A self-appointed task,” said Vasya, “in service of your own pride. Why is it for you to say what God wants? The people would never revere you so, if you had not made them afraid.”
Then we have the antagonists: the priest Konstantin, the step-mother Anna, and the brothers known primarily as The Bear and The Winter King. Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the latter two without giving away a bit of the plot, so I’ll avoid talking much about them at all in my review. Without giving too much away, I will say that both Konstantin and Anna are almost as pitiable as they are wicked. Konstantin is a priest of his times: Christianity was not spread by a bunch of kindly old men wandering around preaching the importance of people being kind to one another, nor did it gain or maintain power by allowing people to choose as their consciences dictated. Christianity, once adopted, was spread, as Vasya reminds us, via fear – fear of punishment, fear of torture, fear of being outcast, fear of execution, and, if all of that failed, fear of eternal damnation, of fire and judgment and wrath. Konstantin believes in his god with all of his heart, but the combination of intolerance, envy, and pride make him easily fooled and, thus, easily used. While I disliked Konstantin from the beginning and gradually grew to pity him, I did the opposite with Anna: her initial plight was worthy of sympathy, but she allowed her fear and intolerance to twist and pervert her, turning her into a monster more ferocious and heartless than the demons by which she believes herself to be surrounded.
There is 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.
I had only two real issues with the novel, when it was all said and done, but neither were significant enough for me to drop the overall score. My first issue was with the final battle, which, well… wasn’t. It seemed like we built up to something that simply fizzled away and was abruptly resolved – it actually happened so fast that I backed up and re-read half the chapter just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. And to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what the hell happened. To put it in familiar terms (and to avoid giving away anything from the plot itself), it would be as if Frodo had gotten all the way from the Shire to the pit of Mount Doom only to have Gandalf suddenly appear out of nowhere, snatch the One Ring from Gollum, give him a stern talking to about the importance of trust and friendship, toss the Ring casually over his shoulder into the firey pit himself like it weren’t no thang, and walk away like a boss. The second issue I had was with the overall tone of the Afterward – primarily the fact that Arden has written this beautiful story but still feels the need to make excuses for her choices when it came to the spelling of many of the Russian names. Sure, it’s a nice gesture for an author to acknowledge that they took some liberties… but the liberties she took weren’t done out of malice or ignorance, nor were they noticeable or in any way significant to… well… anything, really, which serves to do nothing but take the focus off of this lovely story and end it with a babbling, defensive apology.
“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”
All in all, I give this one five cups of zavarka. Just do yourself a favor and avoid the Afterward.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): Morozko & Vasilisa Petrovna.
Elle Tea read the Amazon Kindle version of this selection.
This was an awesome book. It was such a pretty story to read and went by rather quickly. I really liked our main character. She wanted to make her family happy but she also wanted to be true to herself.
At last they saw the city itself, lusty and squalid, like a fair woman with feet caked in filth.
There was one character in the book that I thought, “Wow he’s going to be my favorite.” However I am sad to say as soon as that thought crossed my mind he didn’t show up in the book any longer.
This book made me feel all sorts of emotions. I was worried, happy, sad, and angry (all at different times). There was a short period of time where the book did run a little on the slow side. Also, there was a battle in this story that seemed very short and anti-climatic. It would have been great if the author could have consulted with RA Salvatore for this battle and it would have blown it out of the water.
This book really did show the sheep mentality and how you can scare a group of people into being radicals. I felt sorry for Vasya because her village, the people that watched her grow up turned against her and called her a witch. They blamed all the bad things that were happening on her where they should have turned that blame to Konstantin. It’s scary how one person that has the gift of words can come in somewhere and turn everything upside down. It seems all you have to do is have a voice to follow. Cover your hears people and don’t listen to this singing. All that will be left is death and despair! If only they continued life as they once had. Now that I’m thinking this I think the king and his second in command are responsible for the village’s troubles. The king sent his daughter who turned into a nasty woman who hated Vasya. Then the second in command sent Konstantin. They rid their problems on this village and tore it apart with only sending two people to live there. Hmmmmmmm.
I felt sorry for the old gods that were for the living that were starting to fade with the teachings of Konstantin and I was proud of Vasya for trying to keep the villagers and the old gods happy and safe.
“You are like a maid with the vapors,” said the voice sourly.
This book also showed the place of women a long time ago. It makes me sad to think that was our lot in life but how glad I am that I get to live now and get to make choices for myself. I wouldn’t like to be bartered for and expected to bare children, cook, clean. As the author addresses this with Vasya is being put into a cage. I was sad and angry for Vasya when she does something heroic and then gets beat for it. Even her father thought that if she had been a boy then there would have been applause as apposed to being appalled.
Most books tend to write about their main characters and paint them in beauty. I like that this was not the case with this book. Vasya wasn’t traditionally beautiful and was even described as being frog like. She wondered at one time “if there was something in being beautiful” but she was not consumed or overly worried about it. Vasya did have her own beauty. She loved herself, her family, the old gods, and the horses. She felt and lived full of life.
I liked that she could talk to horses and respected them. She is gifted with meeting a horse that wants to be her companion by the name of Solovey. He reminded me a little of Star Bright from Rainbow Bright because they talked about how stallions are all a little vain and Star Bright definitely was just as Solovey was as well. He did not understand about being groomed and she showed him how nice it was and then had to beg him to let her braid his mane.
I also loved how this book ended. I would recommend this book to others and would read more from this author.
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): I love strong characters and Vasya, Alyosha, Sasha, Pyotr, and Marina did not disappoint me.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this selection.
This is my first foray into Russian folklore / legend, and I must say I quite enjoyed it. I can say I felt a whirlwind of emotions while reading this, much like when reading Justin Cronin. In this case, there was frustration, genuine worry and general disgust with some of the characters. It also calls into question the old customs that predate Christianity being brought into an area and how Christianity affects those customs or more to the point how someone who has a perverse understanding can corrupt said religious beliefs.
I will begin with possibly the more controversial portion of this piece for me. The pagan vice the Christian beliefs. As a Christian, it was hard for me to stomach that Christianity would cause such harm to a community. However, if you look deeper, it is the perversion of Christianity perpetrated by the priest, and the stepmother Anna. Anna, epitomized the zealotry in which some people can get caught up in. However, the source of her zealotry is a result of her not understanding her ancestry. I would hope that if she were aware of who her grandmother was and the capabilities she had as a result of being her granddaughter, this could have been a very different story. However, her ability to see the domovoi is a source of torment for her rather than a comfort for what they were meant to be, household helpers and protectors. Another lapse in this is because she was raised in the “city” vice the “country” where she comes to reside. She was not taught of such things and thus her fanatical behavior of needing to spend all of her time in a church and her crazy clinging to the priest that comes amongst the people of Lesnaya Zemlya.
Before I move on to the priest Konstantin, I want to further express my distaste for Anna Ivanova. Now she was rudely or dispassionately treated by her parents, that she would treat her stepdaughter better would be expected. Oh no. She is clearly so self-absorbed and obnoxious enough to attempt to make Vasya’s life a living hell. She used her piety as her reason for berating the girl at every turn and being prideful. In fact, she wasn’t very Christian-like in lording over Vasya that Irina (Anna’s birth daughter), was more attractive and would make a more viable wife. Really? Evil stepmother archetype anyone? I’m not going to lie, I was rooting for her demise almost from the word go. If only to put her out of her misery, then later to put us out of our pain of having to imagine this frantic woman screeching at Vasya at every turn and then lusting after Konstantin. Yeah, because that’s wholesome. So the anger at realizing that Vasya was not fearful of the domovoi, that she was loved by her family members, was a wee bit on the untamed side and ultimately, loved…ok, lusted after by Konstantin was too much for the little psychopath to take.
Turning our attention back to Konstantin, my second least favorite character, I must say he epitomizes all that is wrong with church leadership no matter the time period. He is a prideful man (yes, one of the deadly sins). He is arrogant and selfish and generally unlikable. He is a great artist and orator. His banishment to the Lesnaya Zemlya was whole unfair, but a necessary evil to push the story along. Upon arriving in his new home, he looks down upon his new flock. However, it doesn’t take long for him to realize his power, or I should say capitalize on the power he used previously. His skill at drawing people in with his voice and his painting abilities caused him to be worshiped. He becomes fanatical in his preaching, but does not preach for the sake of bringing glory to God, but really to pump himself up and cause fear. To further his downfall, is his unreasonable feelings toward Vasya. He is a man, just as any other priest. They are not above developing inappropriate feelings for others, and he does so for Vasya. While he claimed to wants to save her soul, his true motivation was more selfish; send her to a convent so she could be with no one vice being married to anyone other than him. Again, his presence in Lesnaya Zemlya is a necessary evil to get out to the outcome of the story.
Vasya’s family are key elements to the story that build into who she is and her motivation. All the family of Pytor and Marina have various strengths and strength of character that is also reflected specifically in Vasya. Alexsei, the middle son of Pytor and Marina was devout and truly wanting to serve as a monk. His call was not out of vanity or search for glory, but he achieved glory anyway, let’s call it a reward for being pure of heart. Kolya is the eldest and possibly the wildest in behavior of the children judging by his cavorting in Moscow. However, his heart is true and you could rely on Kolya. Irina, being the youngest of the children is the epitome of the doted on and coddled youngest child. Her half-siblings adored her and she them, she was a bit saccharin sweet, but she is likeable as she is kind-hearted and reveres her elder siblings.
Jumping to Pytor for a moment will lead into discussion of Lyosha. Pytor keeps his word and that is the most important character trait for him. On his wife’s death bed, he promised to take care of Vasya and did so to the best of his ability. It was unfortunate that he became stuck with Anna Ivanova, but his position dictated he take the match provided to him when his young children still needed a mother figure, despite having Dunya as their caring nurse. Pytor sought advice when he thought prudent and as the chief of his lands, he did his best to provide for his family and his people. Pytor makes the tough decisions time and again, even if at war with his conscience, he did the best he could for all. My only point of contention with Pytor is that he didn’t stand up to Anna as strongly as I would have liked. However, isn’t this the way of all fairy tales? The father loves his child, but allows the woman to abuse said child. However, in the end, Pytor was strong and willing to sacrifice for his children as any good parent would, which leads me to Lyosha.
My favorite of the siblings is Lyosha. No matter the situation, Lyosha was content to protect Vasya and be her partner in crime. He was aware of her difference but did not judge her or treat her unkindly because of it. If she needed his assistance he was there. Defense of his sister to Anna was second nature and he even stood up to Pytor on her behalf. No matter the situation, Lyosha could be counted on to handle the situation with courage and to the utmost in his ability. He is cautious but ultimately willing to sacrifice for the safety of his clan and especially Vasya.
I feel like Vasya is the amalgamation of all the characters. She takes the best of each character and holds it within herself. She has Lyosha’s and Pytor’s strength of will and character. She has Kolya’s and Alexsei’s devotion. While she is unsure of what she is doing and why she is doing it, she pushes on to learn all she can and make sure she is protecting her family and clan. While she is often protected by her father and brother, her communing with nature and the domovoi work with her to guard the house against the Bear and his minions. Like Pytor she makes the hard choices, when confronted with a vampire she once loved. While she is unsure of her future, she has high hopes and does all that she can to preserve it for herself and her family. Her defiance of Anna did not bother me in the least. While she had to play smartly and attempt to get along with her wretched step-mother, she was kind to submissive and yet defiant in how she accepted the reproaches of Anna. I did appreciate the one instance she didn’t let it slide and with a simple word, crumpled Anna. Oh, what a great laugh. Vasya follows her heart and this leads her to Morozko.
Morozko is hard to peg during most of the novel. You cannot tell if he is friend or foe, hero or villain throughout. He’s attractive but in the strangest of ways, just as death can be for some. He’s mysterious and it is hard to divine his motivations up until he lays it out for Vasya. He is called the Winter King and you find that his purpose is more than meets the eye and it is most definitely can be considered sinister or a necessary evil in life. The only thing I can fault him for is his deliberate nebulousness created more drama than was necessary. Had he merely explained to Pytor why he was giving him the amulet to give to Vasya, maybe Pytor wouldn’t have been so paranoid, maybe not. Had he explained to Dunya in her dream, the purpose, maybe she wouldn’t have been overly protective as she had been, maybe not. However, Morozko is more than he appears to be and well, he doesn’t have to explain anything to anyone. He is powerful and comes to care about people in a manner of speaking. However, he is one of the forces standing against the Bear and he knows exactly what needs to be done and what roles each person needs to play. His cool confidence won me over and the ability to teach the hard lessons without being as cruel as others in the novel, even when he could have been is appealing to me.
Well, to discuss the Bear would give too much away of the story. However, to know that he and Morozko have this relationship that is not one born in duality, but could actually complement each other is at odds with how they treat each other. Morozko fights to keep the Bear in check, lest the people of Rus will find themselves in the most difficult of situations. There is no real enmity coming from Morozko to the Bear, but the Bear wants his way and will sink to any level to achieve it.
Finally, the Nightingale, the great steed that is now faithful cohort of Vasya. I believe that one could not exist or function without the other in the end. Much like Morozko and his horse. Nightingale is as wild as Vasya but willing to be taught so that he can best serve her in their mission. There is nothing to say about Nightingale other that, he is best horse ever!!! Step aside Pegasus, Nightingale is clearly the best mythological steed.
I cannot express how much I enjoyed this book. When able to sit and read, it was a good forty to fifty pages in a sitting, because like The Passage, I needed to know what would happen next. It also drew you in emotionally and I can say, I appreciated that. If you like lore, this is a good place to spend some time and is well worth it.
Lady Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Morozko, Lyosha, & Vasya.
Lady Esbe read the Del Rey hardcover edition of this selection.