Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Today I'm looking at a fantasy set in medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale, which will be part of an upcoming trilogy. I found myself really enjoying this book although I suspect a large part is because I don't really know anything about Russian folklore and mythology so a lot of this material was new to me. I will say the plotlines aren't anything that hasn't been done before in different stories but I think it's done well enough that it's well worth the effort.

The story mostly centers around Vasilisa, the daughter of Boyar Pyotr in the woods far north of Moscow. More importantly, Vasilisa has a touch of the old blood from her mother's side and she's capable of seeing the numerous spirits that inhabit her family's house and the surrounding woods. Vasilisa speaks with the domovoi who lives in the great oven and helps clean the kitchen, becomes friends with the rusalka, the water spirit in the local pond, and plays with the horse spirits. But when her father brings a new wife home from Moscow, Vasilisa's life becomes far more complicated. Her step-mother can see the household spirits as well, but she is devoutly Christian and believes that all the household protectors are devils and demons. Vasilisa's fight to keep the houshold guardians safe becomes all the more important as a malevolent and ancient power in the forest begins to stir once again.

As I said, I don't know really anything about Russian folklore and since it's a huge element of the story I got to learn at least bits and pieces as I followed along. If there's one thing I enjoy, it's folklore so getting to see Vasilisa interact with household guardians and woodsprites was a huge win for me. I will say that the book probably doesn't trod new ground. There's the element of old beliefs conflicting with new ones which has been done in various forms in various books from American Gods to The Mists of Avalon. On top of that, Vasilisa has elements of standard spunky princess (she is a nobleman's daughter after all), who doesn't wish to be trapped by marriage, either to a mortal man or as a bride of Christ in a nunnery. What I find is most important in these cases is if the writing is good enough to carry a story despite it potentially being one you've read a dozen times before. I think I can safely say in this case Arden does an excellent job and manages to create a truly interesting book out of preexisting elements. Creation isn't always in making new things, but in taking existing things and putting them together in new ways.

I will say that the ending for this book in particular felt a little rushed and left with an almost definitive ending, which is curious because this is apparently part of a planned trilogy. I can understand having a plot resolved in the first act of a three act saga, but I think the pacing towards the end specifically could have used a little more work. I am also curious about what happened to Sasha, Vasilisa's older brother who left home and apparently becomes a warrior monk adviser of the Grand Prince of Moscow. (Dmitry Donskoy I think? He's described as the grandson of Ivan I and that's what I've been able to find on Wikipedia but I don't know a lot about Grand Dukes of Moscow either.) So possibly Sasha will be included in future books, but I guess it's equally as possible that he won't, it remains to be seen. Ultimately I'm very curious about where Arden intends to take this story from here.

Overall, I thought this book was very interesting and I highly recommend it. If you're a fan of folklore, mythology, or fairy tales this book has enough elements of it to keep you interested and the characters are interesting as well. Arden's writing does an excellent job at recombining old things in new ways and it's well worth the time.

- Kalpar

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