Vasya is not only an extremely curious and spirited child who refuses to be won, tamed or used like a cow for breeding, she can also see creatures that others cannot, the sprites and spirits that guard the hearth and the stables, covertly mend the clothes and groom the horses, or populate the woodlands surrounding her wintry Russian homestead. But her devoutly religious stepmother Anna can see the creatures too and doesn’t realise how important they are to the well-being of their village. Anna thinks they are demons, and she finds an enthusiastic ally in the new priest, who was sent unwillingly from Moscow and is determined to make his mark by wiping out the supernatural menace and using threats of hellfire and damnation to terrify the villagers, forcing them to abandon their pagan beliefs and turn their backs on their invisible protectors. As the villager’s support for them wanes, the sprites and woodland guardians begin to lose their powers, leaving the village unprotected against the forces of darkness. As starvation and death begin to blight the little community, only Vasya is left to save her people, but how can she possibly survive an unearthly encounter with Morozko the Lord of Winter (aka Death) and the terrifyingly ruthless Medved the Bear?
Sometimes it’s an honour to review a book ahead of its publication, knowing that I’m one of the first to read something very special. The Bear and the Nightingale was that kind of experience. It’s a masterpiece of magical realism that I already predict will be one of the standout novels of 2017, and the accomplishment is made all the more praiseworthy because it is Katherine Arden’s first book. Her young heroine Vasya is complex and bold and a refreshing change from the cookie-cutter characters we normally meet in this kind of story, and the intertwining of Russian folklore and Russian history and the conflict of pagan beliefs versus Christian fanaticism is spellbinding. It’s also incredibly beautifully written and hugely atmospheric – you can almost fill the chill in the air as you read it - and, although some reviewers have already compared it favourably to The Night Circus and Uprooted, the delicacy of Arden’s prose and the deftness with which she juggles ‘reality’ and fairy tale reminds me much more of Angela Carter or Susan Hill’s best work. It’s an extraordinary feat of the imagination, and if Arden can write so gorgeously and so powerfully the first time out of the gate, who knows what wonders she will create for us next? Outstanding.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE / AUTHOR: KATHERINE ARDEN / PUBLISHER: DEL REY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW