Katherine Arden is from Texas, but has spent time in Russia and Vermont, so she now chooses Hawaii as her home. Her background picking macadamia nuts makes novel-writing look good. The Bear and the Nightingale is her first novel.
In the almost-everlasting Russian winter, when snow grows deep enough to cover houses, the only thing to do is stay inside and huddle together for warmth, telling tales to pass the time. Vasilisa loves this time with her siblings, listening to the fairy tales told by their nurse, especially tales of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon who appears in the night to claim unwary souls. Even the household spirits fear him, so wise men do likewise.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies and her father brings home a devout new wife from the city, the family is forbidden from honoring the household spirits. This frightens Vasilisa, who senses this is far more important than anyone knows. When the crops fail and forest evil takes its toll on the village, Vasilisa’s stepmother becomes even more determined to either force her into a convent, or a marriage. But with danger drawing ever nearer, Vasilisa must call upon powers she has long denied, if she is to protect her family from a nightmare straight from the words of her nurse’s most frightening tale.
The Bear and the Nightingale is not what I expected. It’s layered and complex—and cold!—with Russian culture infusing every page. Vasilisa is an unusual character; she’s so strong and determined, yet with a touch of sweetness to her fierceness. The fairy tales in this novel are not the Disney version most of us think of, but dark and forbidding like the original tales are. I really enjoyed this novel, especially because of its unique setting and voice.
(Galley provided by Del Rey via NetGalley.)