Vasilisa – Vasya – has grown up not knowing her mother who died shortly after she was born. A source of frustration to her family, she is more interested in climbing trees and exploring the Russian wilderness than she is in sewing and other more widely accepted female pursuits. When Vasya’s father decides that it is time for him to remarry, it is due in no small part to wanting Vasya to have a mother-figure to look up to, and hopefully one that can take her in hand where all others have failed.
When he returns from Moscow with his new wife, Anna, in tow, it’s immediately apparent that she and Vasya are not going to get on, although they have more in common than they realise. Anna is a fiercely devout Christian, and forbids the family from following “the old ways” – an order that is reinforced by the arrival of a new priest and his dismay at their “demon worship”.
Soon, the crops begin to fail, and misfortune descends upon their village. Vasya does what she can to honour the spirits that protect their settlement, having realised that their folkloric rituals have more of a purpose than many suspect, but she soon faces a bigger issue as it becomes apparent that an evil presence seeks to unleash itself upon the world – a presence that they are becoming increasingly vulnerable to.
Vasya is a fantastic character, and one who evoked a whole range of emotions for me. The attitude to young women at the time this is set is that, upon reaching a certain age, they would either marry the man her family chose for her or enter a convent, and neither of these options is at all palatable to Vasya:
Always someone else must decide for me. But this I will decide for myself.
I loved her determination to make her own choices, even as those choices meant that she became increasingly alone and cut-off from those around her. I also cheered her courage throughout the novel as she sets out to single-handedly protect those around her, despite the punishments and scant thanks that her actions result in.
I did find The Bear and the Nightingale a little slow-paced to begin with. The initial part of the novel introduces the characters to the reader and gives a sense of time and place, but there isn’t a great deal that actually happens. It’s worth persevering with if you feel like this, however – whilst it may be slow to start, once it got going I couldn’t put it down.
The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s debut novel, and is a beautifully written evocation of winter and old Russian folktales. It has been compared to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and the works of Neil Gaiman. I was also reminded of Hannah Kent’s The Good People (which isn’t out until next year) in the clash between Christianity and more traditional beliefs and rituals. I understand that there are two more novels planned in this series, and I can’t wait to find out what this spirited young woman gets up to next.
The Bear and the Nightingale will be published on 26 January 2017. Many thanks to Tess Henderson for providing a copy for review.