I recently finished reading The Bear and the Nightingale Trilogy by Katherine Arden and found it to be thoroughly intoxicating and an insomnia inducing page-turner.
The storyline has an historical setting blended with fairytale elements. It is richly and generously steeped in Russian folklore and thrillingly reminiscent of the Russian fairy tales from childhood days. But a grown up version appropriate for YA+ age group. It had me captivated from the very first page taking me on a bewitching epic journey replete with family drama, religious conflict, political intrigue, tragedy, loss, magic, mystery, friendship, warmth and delectable slow burn romance.
Utterly delightful, dark and whimsical it draws you into its world with a wild fervor.
The story unfolds in a quaint village in the northern woods of Russia in the 1300s and spans the period of the later part of Ivan II Grand Prince of Moscow’s rule and the early part of Ivan’s son Prince Dmitry’s reign. In lyrical prose it follows the journey a young girl called Vasya, from the forests to Moscow as she tries to strike a balance between the old beliefs and new that will allow for peaceful co-existence between the natural world filled with forces of light, dark and inbetween and the modern that promises of progress and convenience. In the process she gradually comes into her powers. But not before getting entangled in an epic struggle between old gods and later in the battle of Kulikova between Russian principalities and the Tatars and driving the outcome of both while experiencing heart ache, grief, love, pain, strength, friendship and striking unlikely and powerful alliances along the way. As the main character Vasya is obstinate, wild, rebellious and determined yet kind and considerate with a sense of vulnerability and insecurity and strong family ties that makes her realistic and relatable. Having inherited her mother’s special magical lineage, she can communicate with the mythical guardians of the hearth and forest, animals and other creatures from the old belief system. The narrative is laced with a delectable hint of romance that is developed exquisitely across the three books. Vasya and the winter king Morozko’s pairing and relationship is way out of this world.
The layered and complex underlying themes of religious adaptation and struggle, coming of age, all too familiar conflict between old and new, morality and making place for oneself without conforming into a mould, make it a memorable epic.
The vivid storytelling with unforgettable and well etched characters is atmospheric and it brings alive the settings and mood page after page…the sense of superstition, fear and foreboding as much as it captures the warmth of listening to wondrous folklore narrated by grandma, comfortably curled up with a hot drink to ward off the wintry chill while creating a yearning to delve the realms, embrace the frost.
I loved the first book in the trilogy and it raised the bar very high with its gradual flow yet edgy pace and evocative tone that transported me to Vasya’s world. In comparison I did not find the following two books quite as bewitching and perfectly paced as the first, though I loved the way the plot line has been weaved to bring the trilogy to a beautiful closure leaving the readers spellbound and aching for more.
Some memorable quotes :
“There was a time, not long ago When flowers grew all year When days were long And nights star-strewn And men lived free from fear”
“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna”
“Solovey will take me to the ends of the earth if I ask it. I am going into the world, Alyosha. I will be no one’s bride, neither of man nor of God. I am going to Kiev and Sarai and Tsargrad, and I will look upon the sun on the sea.”
“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.”
“It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God’s name.”
“It is time to put aside dreaming. Fairy tales are sweet on winter nights, nothing more.”