Vasya is the youngest daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich. With her mother passing away when the little girl was born, and older brothers roaming around the house, she grew up wilder and less predictable than her oldest sister Olga. Vasya loves exploring the woods and is more interested in talking to and riding the horses, than doing typical girl things. Her free-spirited nature is frowned upon, but Vasya's father is very forgiving of her youngest daughter. Until, finally, he realises that she needs a mother figure in her life and the old nurse, Dunya, will no longer be sufficient.
Vasya and her stepmother don't get on well, however, and the girl retreats even more into herself, her only friends being creatures than no-one else can see. At first she doesn't realise this is out of the ordinary and she doesn't see any harm in it. But when fear starts descending upon her family and the village, Vasya comes to realise that darker forces are at work, and the fairy tales that Dunya has been telling her all her life, might be more truthful than she ever imagined.
I am not very familiar with Russia and its history and so reading about its culture and customs, albeit fictionalised, within this book is incredibly fascinating. The role of women in their society and the way marriages are arranged are painfully outdated, and incredibly frustrating to read about trough 21st century western eyes, and yet within the context of the story it makes complete sense.
It's what elevates Vasya to such an inspirational and strong character towards the end – as it emphasises that despite the common perception of those around her, girls can be the heroes of the story. And what a hero Vasya is; clever, resourceful and kind, even though she is often not granted the same courtesy.
It isn't just the perception of women that was different to what I know; the role of religion and even what counts as a monarchy within this book feels though slightly familiar, just a tad more otherworldly. It has the same medieval feeling as so many European fairy tales have, but with an incredible detail that makes even the most outrageous political movements more believable. This is a book that is really remarkable in its depth, clearly extremely well-researched and it all fits together perfectly.
And while the story is imaginative and exciting, what stayed with me the most after finishing this book was the beautiful writing throughout. Katherine Arden truly captures the magic of a fantastical tale, lacing the pages not only with adventure but also with melodic words. The rhythmical quality of her writing adds an ethereal atmosphere to what is already a wondrous journey.
Magical and lyrical, The Bear and the Nightingale is a beautiful introduction to Russian fairy tales and after reading this gorgeous novel I'm excited to explore more folklore from this region.
The Bear and the Nightingale is published by Ebury Publishing and you can get your copy from Foyles or your own preferred retailer.
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