by Brittney Reed-Saltz
Toward the beginning of 2017, Jessica recommended The Bear and the Nightingale to me. Because I’m terrible about procrastinating when it comes to reading new releases, it was only in December that I finally read it. Now that the sequel has been released, I’m here to tell anyone else dragging their feet about this book: It’s worth it. You should read it.
In truth, I don’t regret my procrastination too much, because any time in winter is a perfect time to read The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. Set in medieval Russia, they spin a story of rough winters, political marriages, the clash between old and new religions, and fairy tales.
Vasilisa Petrovna (Vasya to her family) spent her childhood gathering around with her siblings to listen to their nurse, Dunya, tell tales of heroes and of the beings who inhabit the dense forest. As she grows up, her family tells her that she is too old for fairy tales… in direct opposition to the unseen reality around them. Only Vasya speaks with the domovoi who lives in the oven and protects their home, or the vazila who lives in the stables with the horses. Only Vasya can understand the language the horses use with one another, and learns to ride under their tutelage. Although her stepmother, Anna, glimpses enough of these beings to fear them, only Vasya understands them.
When Konstantin, a young priest, arrives from Moscow, he inflames the people’s fear of God and works to stamp out the old ways. No longer do the people leave offerings of bread for the domovoi or the vazila, and so the beings who share their world, and who protect the order of things, weaken. When a one-eyed sleeper in the forest awakens and the dead begin to stalk the living, only Vasya is aware enough to help. But how long can she protect her family and the beings of the forest, when her stepmother conspires to send her away and the entire village whispers that she is a witch?
Of all the things Arden does well, she excels in two areas: description and conflict. Her settings come to life, sparkling with the glimmer of newly-fallen snow and redolent with the scent of baking bread. And the plot brims with conflict. There is hardly a character without an internal struggle or a disagreement with their family, or societal expectations, or the demands of religion. As a reader, I love when an author packs so much tension into a novel. It gives me the feeling that anything could spark a fire at any moment, and I can’t stop reading until I see how everything plays out.
If you’re at all familiar with Russian folklore, the name Vasilisa probably caught your eye immediately, and the Winternight Trilogy will certainly appeal to anyone who loves fairy tales and folklore. Arden writes highly detailed and immersive fantasy that does not bog itself or its readers down with info-dumping, and that is literary while maintaining approachability even to audiences who are not avid readers of historical fiction. You don’t need to know anything about Russian history to understand this series, to lose yourself in it, and to love it.
The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower both are available through your local RCLS branch.