The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

“It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”

Deep in rural Rus(sia) – some 200 years before the rise of Ivan the Terrible – Vasilisa is the youngest child of the local lord, allowed to run somewhat wild after her mother dies in childbirth. Life is hard in the cold North, but Vasya’s (yes, prepare for all those strange Russian pet-name forms!) life only grows difficult with the arrival of her new, young stepmother. The two are the only ones who seem to see the domovoi, the household spirits, but their reactions couldn’t be more different.

When an ambitious and charismatic young priest is sent to the village, hell bent on driving such superstitions out of the local populace, it isn’t long before darker forces begin to gather, looking for a way in…

The Bear and the Nightingale is a lovely mix of a fairy tale and a history lesson. With all the classic elements – evil stepmother, helpful sprites only the heroine can see, etc – it would be easy to turn this into a cosy folklore retelling, which would be interesting enough especially with the Russian setting.

However, the story becomes something that much more powerful by being full of excellent (or so I’m told) historical detail. The sense of this being a real place and period of history stops the fairy tale taking over, giving the whole thing that much of a darker edge.

That too, though, is the weakness. It took me several chapters to settle into reading this, largely because the history and level of detail makes for a rather slow read. As Vasya grows up, there is a very unwelcome hint of sexual violence, particularly as girls became women at an age we’d find shocking now, and just the general less-than-pleasant treatment of women ‘back in the day’ (hah!). That she overcomes so much and remains so staunchly a feminist hero as she takes on all the real and un-real worlds can throw at her just feels a little like wish fulfilment.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The pacing is a little slow, and the occasional switch of viewpoint doesn’t help with a consistent tone, but overall the world building is superb, and the story both sweetly familiar and nicely just a bit different.

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / 28 chapters
First published: January 2017
Series: the author says on GoodReads that there will be two sequels – yay!
Read from 22nd November- 6th December 2016

My rating: 8.5/10

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