A perfect, darkly mythic tale of old Russia
Katherine Arden’s first book should grip anyone with a love for old folk/faerie tales, especially those who prefer their those tales to have more than a whiff of the darkly sinister about them – less Perrault, more Grimm, and. perhaps heavy with Pagan roots.
Arden, in transpires, is a Russophile, and spent some time in Russia as a student, steeping herself in its Medieval past. The Bear and The Nightingale is, by all accounts, the first volume of a trilogy. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I requested it from NetGallley, as I’m not wildly enamoured of the fantasy/fantasy YA genre, particularly where sequels are concerned, as my prejudices tell me this may all be too marketing driven and not enough driven by creative integrity.
However….prejudice is so often there to be exposed and exploded, and, after a slow start, Arden hooked me up and tied me tight into her wonderful tale of a family, minor relatives by marriage of the tsar of the time, living far away from Moscow. The central character is a wild, witchen child – or, at least one who sees more than others, and is aware of the myriad domestic and nature deities which are well established in the pantheon of pre-Christian (and even post-Christian) myths and legends from classical times. And Slavic folk lore has many of these.
Vasya’s mother Marina, who died giving birth to her, (they always seem to) had a kind of second sight, and could see those nature and hearth deities. She is happily and passionately married to Pyotr, a heroic, but ordinarily mortal man. Most of her children are four square without other powers, but Vasya and her older brother Sasha ‘see beyond’
The old religion and a mystical Christianity have to sit side by side with each other, sometimes easily, and sometimes….not. Some of those with additional powers, like Marina, and like Vasya, juggle a more universal sense of holy and sacred better than others.
When a highly devout and charismatic priest with dreams of leadership and glory is banished from Moscow to Pyotr’s domaine, a deadly clash between faiths and practices is set in place. And compounded by the fact that Pyotr has had a new wife foisted on him, by the Tsar – for political reasons. The new wife, Vasya’s stepmother, is not much older than Vasya, who is standing on the edge of moving from girl to woman. There are the usual folk tale tropes of wicked – or at least, spiteful, stepmother and far nobler, braver stepdaughter, but there are also darker forces around, as stepmother Anna, who also has powers to see the native deities of the house, the woods and the forests, fears and hates them as demons. She wishes not to be a wife, not to be a mother, and longs to be a Christian nun. Vasya, the most wonderfully spirited, passionate child and woman wishes to be curtailed by wifedom, motherhood nor a Bride of Christ. She is akin to elementals and wishes for a life of adventure, which her sex denies her
There are wonderfully dark forces abroad in this, satisfyingly archetypal battles between Good and Evil – except, which is which, is not always so simplistically obvious. The dark Marozko, Frost King, demon of winter is simultaneously a less malevolent figure, Jack Frost.
And saint-like beautiful priest Konstantin, who paints fabulous icons, and seeks to lead the people away from worshipping older gods, is desperate to hear the voice of God
Suffice it to say, the story started a little slowly, but I kept reading with some interest until the hooks took hold, as Vasya became old enough to show her heroic qualities
The marketing of the book is falling between several stools – because the writing itself is quite complex, it has an adult, fantasy marketing but the age of the central character mark it as Young Adult. I requested it from NetGalley on its General Fiction (ie NOT YA) marketing, and only as I neared the end wondered whether it would ALSO appeal to that market.
Definitely a read for short days and long midwinter nights though………..
And, yes, I WILL be looking out for the sequel………
The Bear and The Nightingale will be published on the 12th January in the UK and two days earlier in the States. The young author, one to watch, surprisingly has not grown up in the far North – she is a Texan, but I was convinced she dwelt in frozen, evergreen forests, and gambolled with the wolves……