Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

Russian fairy/folk tales are not all about Baba Yaga. The Russian steppes are full of spirits and beings at peace with the people and waiting for the right opportunity to feed on fear and repay with fire and ice.

Vasilisa Petrovna is the last child born of a line that began with a ragged commoner who appeared out of the woods and ended up in the royal family. One of her daughters became the wife of a northern boyar and gave him three strong sons and a beautiful daughter who had none of the gifts their grandmother passed on, at least not until the winter when she tells her husband she is determined to give birth to the child she carries, the last child. Vasilisa's mother fulfills her promise to her beloved husband that she will see the child born, entrusting her other children to her old nurse, Dunya, and to her husband.

It takes Vladmirivich four years of Vasya's wildness before he travels to Moscow to marry once again. Anna Ivanovna is a fearful, and some say mad, wisp of a wife who gives her husband a pale but beautiful daughter and brings a proud monk determined to make his mark in the northern wilderness. Instead, the monk, a gifted artist dedicated to God and painting icons, brings fear and sows the seeds that will bring fire and death.

Vasya sees and knows the domovoi, the household spirits that protect her father's home, land, and animals. Anna Ivanovna sees the spirits as well. She is after all a child of the wild, ragged commoner that was mother to Vasya's mother as well. Anna, however, is a devout Christian and has always been afraid of the demons she sees while Vasya, an ugly frog of a child, feeds and cares for the household spirits. It is Vasilisa Petrovna's gifts that make the people under the monk's control believe she is a witch and haunts the monk's dreams and will lead to a confrontation with the Midwinter King, Frost, and the bear that feeds on fear and brings fire and death.

The tales of Baba Yaga were some of my favorite stories growing up, so it was with relish I dove into Katherine Arden's novel rooted in Russian folk tales. The Bear and the Nightingale is a departure from western fairy tales and rooted in traditions that few westerners know or have heard. That does not diminish their power or their magical fascination. The frozen reaches of northern Russia are full of magic and conflict that have yet to be thoroughly plumbed, let alone scratched. Arden's story of upyry, domovoi, and the life of early Rus' while still under Mongol control is bright and magical. The landscape is a world of the seen and unseen, a world far from the centers of power where new gods struggle to replace the old golds and where the old gods still inhabit the minds and hearts of the people.

The Bear and the Nightingale is as much a tale of magic as it is a treatise on the clash of beliefs, the magician offering change in much the same way as the magician offered new lamps for old to capture the power of Aladdin's lamp. Vasya shares her food and her strength with the fading household spirits to stand on the side of tradition. The Midwinter King foresaw Vasilisa Petrovna's importance in the coming struggle when he made her father promise to give her the amulet, his bride gift. Arden's novel is the discovery of the Arkenstone among a dragon's hoard easily worth 5/5 stars.

That is all. Disperse.

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