The first of a trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical and wonderful story combining elements of folklore and fantasy, and exploring various themes, most prominent among them religion—specifically the impact that the arrival/spread of Christianity had on old beliefs. Set in Russia, the story introduces us to the family of Pyotr Vladimirovich whose beloved wife Marina (who had something of magic in her) dies after giving birth to their youngest daughter, our ‘heroine’ Vasilisa or Vasya. Vasya is the only one of the children of have inherited her mother’s abilities/magic; and can see and speak to the spirits that guard their world, the homes they live in, the stables, the forests, and all else—and it is these that keep evil at bay. Vasya and her siblings have a happy enough life, being brought up by Dunya, their mother’s old nurse who tells them all the old fairy tales and stories including of Morozoko, the frost king, but Vasya grows up a little wild preferring to spend her time outdoors and in the forest and not caring much for social decorum. As the other children grow up, Pyotr begins to worry about Vasya and decides on remarriage. His new wife (not of Pyotr’s own choosing due to circumstances that he finds himself in) also has Vasya’s gifts, she can see these spirits but considers them demons rather than friends. Soon, a new priest also comes to their little village and begins to encourage people to give up their old ways—almost all used leave offerings for these spirits even though they could not see them. Vasya sees the village begin to change in front of her eyes as the priest uses his charisma as well as fear to change the people, and as a result, the spirits begin to weaken, and evil begins to enter their lives and homes. Vasya is soon the only friend the spirits have left, and the only one who can protect her village against the evil that is being unleashed. Alongside other storylines too, proceed, something of the fairytales that Dunya used to narrate is playing out in real life, and Vasya is very much a part of it, while away from them in town, the prince (Vasya’s mother’s half-brother) is worried about succession to his throne and the developments that take place as a consequence end up impacting Vasya and her family in more than one way. [Some of the characters are historical but their stories are tweaked.]
This was a rich and beautiful tale, told in a wonderful way. I loved the setting in old Russia, and the whole concept of the spirits that look after everything around us—the domovoi or spirit of the hearth, the vazila, or protector of the stables, the rusalka, the water nymph [even Baba Yaga (the one fairy tale character I was most familiar with from old Misha magazines) finds a mention]. In fact, I felt the author explored/developed the whole theme of the clash or conflict that arose between old beliefs and new, with of course the magic elements attached to them so well—rather perfectly blending in the elements of fantasy and reality. Besides faith, other themes too are explored—from family and relationships to social mores and sanity/insanity, as well as politics and power, and of course magic. Politics we see ends up having also completely unintended, yet rather grave impacts on more than one life (in addition to the reasons those steps were taken). And while there is a lot going on in the story, both real and fastastical elements being explored side by side, even weaving into each other, they all seemed to move along pretty seamlessly.
Vasya is a strong and spirited heroine, one who is confident of her own opinions and ways of seeing things and is not even for a moment swayed by the influences that easily seem to impact all others. For a time, she seems to be giving into what is expected of her (the more orthodox paths in life) but soon enough she realises that those are neither for her, nor what she is meant to do. Her family is mostly supportive and loving, but both Pyotr and Dunya take steps that they think will protect her and when her sister and brothers have left home (old enough to start their own lives), she must more or less on her own contend with her stepmother, who is the stereotypical stepmother in some ways, though battling demons of her own.
And speaking of demons, there are a fair few in the story and these certainly make the atmosphere fairly creepy at times; not the spirits but the evil that is unleased when the spirits begin to weaken, and some of the forms that this takes—those plus the cold winter setting makes this one a great read for the Halloween/Fall/Winter time.
I really enjoyed this one, and look forward to seeing how the story proceeds as Vasya continues her adventure.
[p.s. The cover art of this one is also gorgeous.]
Have you read this one (and the others in the series)? How did you find them? Looking forward to your thoughts!
Cover image: my own with in the background a page from Little Cock Feather Frock (a Russian Folktale)