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The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, beautiful retellings of Russian folktales. The Bear and the Nightingale recounts the childhood and adolescence of Vasilisa, the youngest daughter of Pytor, a minor lord from northern Rus. Vasilisa, last child born to Marina, the daughter of the former grand-princess of Moscovi, a woman many believed a witch who enchanted the grand prince but who died within the convent walls of Moscow. Marina promises Pytor, that Vasilisa will be just like her grandmother. Although Marina dies shortly after Vasilisa’s birth, Pytor promises to care for Vasilisa, a strange, long-limbed child who grows into a bold and outspoken adolescent.Vasilisa is more unusual than just her physical appearance, she also has the ability to see the cherti, the supernatural beings who are household guardians and nature spirits of traditional Slavic folklore. When Vasilisa approaches adolescence, Pytor finally remarries. Vasilisa’s step-mother, Anna, is the sister of the current grand-prince, a devout Christian woman thought insane for her sighting of ‘demons’, the cherti. Anna is sent to Pytor and her new home in the forested regions of northern Rus, accompanied by Father Constantine, a priest gifted with a powerful talent for oratory.The arrival of Anna and Father Constantine into Vasilisa’s community soon brings a growing darkness. The people of Vasilisa’s community fall under the compelling power of Constantine’s words and the growing Christian belief generates fear toward the traditional beliefs in Cherti. Soon the natural powers that held an equilibrium within northern Rus, keeping darker forces constrained weaken, loosening the bonds of Medvedev, the Bear. Standing against the growing darkness of fear which Medvedev inspires and feeds upon, Vasilisa is aided by Medvedev’s brother, Morozko, King Frost, but also known as Death.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a superb retelling of the vibrant Russian fairytales, combing medieval history and the darker folktale elements of the harsh Russian environment. A must-read!