Fairy tale retellings are a mixed bag. Traditional fairy tales are pretty sparse on details, plot twists are sudden and unexplained, and the entire story is usually very short. The very vagueness of a fairy tale screams out for a retelling. What’s the character’s backstory? WHY did they do that inexplicable thing? How did the story get from point A to wherever the hell we are now?
In The Bear and the Nightingale author Katherine Arden weaves a story that feels like a fairy tale retelling, but is more likely inspired by many Russian folktales. All of the elements are present:
- mother who died in childbirth
- child who is unusual in looks, temperament, abilities and actions
- the evil stepmother
- the kindly but ineffective father
- the pompous, and ultimately deceived, religious figure
- folkloric creatures – good, evil, and neutral; guardians and destroyers
The story takes place in medieval Russia. Local ruler Pyotr’s first wife dies in childbirth, and years later he takes a new bride to help raise his children, particularly his youngest daughter, Vasilia. Anya, the new wife, was born with the ability to see what she calls demons. Her only salvation has been religion, as none of the demons live in Christian churches. Vasilia was also born with the ability to see the creatures, but her approach has been to befriend these household and forest guardians, sharing her meals and spending time talking with them.
Enter the priest. A pompously ecclesiastical young man who would rather spend his days painting icons, but knows it is his calling to save this village from evil. With the full support of Anya, he admonishes the villagers to turn from their old gods – who just happen to be the guardians that terrify Anya and befriend Vasilia. Neglected, these guardians begin to diminish, their power and protection fading with them as one by one, villagers stop putting out offerings. Eventually, they will be unable to stop the evil that has possessed the priest, and it will be up to Vasilia to make a stand for the village that betrays her.
Old versus new. Religion versus tradition. Good versus evil. Themes of folklore and fairytale retold with lush, beautiful language and an exotic setting. The writing is lyrical and evocative and completely pulled me into the story. The characters are wonderfully drawn and even the “bad guys” are somewhat sympathetic. Vasilia is a wonderful and believable heroine. In short, pick this one up and prepare to spend a long weekend curled up in front of the fire, or under your coziest blanket, a cup of hot tea/cocoa by your side. You won’t regret it.
An Advance Reader Copy of The Bear and The Nightingale was given to me by the publisher, Del Rey, in exchanged for a fair and honest review. All the opinions above are mine alone.