The Bear and the Nightingale – A Dark, Adult Fairy Tale

Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, the bird-prince and the wicked sorcerer-they only come for the wild maiden.

Vasilisa, heroine of The Bear and the Nightingale, the extraordinary debut novel by Katherine Arden, is one such wild maiden. She rides horses better than any man could; indeed she speaks to them. She sees things no one else can. And her mother was rumored to be descended from witches of the Forest. For Vasilisa’s home is shared by household spirits like the vazila who guards the stables, there’s the rusalka who resides in the lake, and of course, the blue-eyed, winter demon, Frost.  Vasilisa knows and understands them all.

These gifts are both a blessing and a curse when Vasilia’s father, a great Boyar, is compelled via Byzantine politics to marry mentally troubled religious fanatic Anna. As in any classic story from Brothers Grimm, Vasilisa is inevitably the subject of her stepmother’s hatred and jealousy. Matters become even worse with the arrival of the handsome, charismatic Holy Man, Father Konstantin, who’s both repelled and attracted to the wild, pagan Vasilia and who begins a campaign to ‘cleanse’ the community of its old gods and superstitions. In doing so, he paves the way for something much darker to come forward.

Arden has skillfully taken classic Russian folklore and myth and spun it into a haunting new fantasy novel that bewitches you from the from very first pages. Her use of setting is superb; you practically shiver at the thought of the terrible winters, can smell the wood smoke, and taste the borscht. Her characters beyond Vasilisa, from her parents, to her siblings, to a faithful old nurse and even villains like Konstantin and Anna, are full bodied figures full of life and dimension. Politics and the struggle between Church and reigning Nobility for power, is an ongoing theme brought most to life with the fabulous figure of Aleksei the Metropolitan, who’s so conniving and manipulative he could have fit it in equally well in Game of Thrones.  Ardeth also offers a fiercely feminist indictment of the limited roles to women in Vasilisa’s culture who, as she bitterly notes, are imprisoned either through marriage or in the convent. Patriarchy is just as great a danger here as Karachun the death-god. Seeing Vasilisa take on human and inhuman threats alike is a wonderful way to spend a long, cold winter night.

The Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden

Top photo: Bigstock

About Winnefred Ann Frolik (393 Articles)
Winnefred Ann Frolik (Winnie for short) was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She completed the International Baccleareate program at Schenley High School and then attended the University of Pittsburgh where she completed a double major in English Literature and Creative Writing. After graduation she spent a number of years working in the non-profit sector and it was during that phase in her life she moved to D.C.  Winnie co-wrote a book on women in the U.S. Senate with Billy Herzig.  She enrolled in a baking program in culinary school and worked in food services for a while. She currently works in personal services while writing for Woman Around Town and doing other freelance writing projects including feeble personal attempts at fiction. Her brother is a reporter in Dayton, Ohio so clearly there are strong writing genes in the family.  She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with two demanding cats.