The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale
, , ,

, Book # 1
Del Rey Books
January 10th 2017
May 1, 2020 May 3, 2020

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn't mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse's fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa's mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa's new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa's stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse's most frightening tales.

About the book

The Bear and the Nightingale is a book set in the cold Russia of the 14th century where a patriarchal society still reigns. We follow the story of a landowning family, who, despite the high social level, suffers from hunger in winter. Their home is located in a northern village where winter lasts 7 months and is well hidden in the forest.

The family is made up of the father, Petr, mother, Marina and 4 children and the story begins with the father returning home and his wife gives him the news of being pregnant for the fifth time. Her nanny tells her that pregnancy will kill her because she is too weak, but the woman wants baby because the girl “will be like her.” Some time later the baby is born and named Vasilisa, Vasja for the family, but unfortunately the woman dies.

Vasja first grows up only with the nanny and her family, then, when at age 6 she gets lost in the woods, both her nanny and her brothers, order the father to remarry because the girl needs a mother. This episode will mark the girl even if for several years she will not remember meeting a “man without an eye and with sharp teeth and a knight who will save her”. We understand that this knight is important because he will tell his horse “she is getting very strong”.

The father, then, has to remarry and leaves for Moscow with two of his children to visit the Prince who by the way is his relative. In fact Marina was his half-sister. The prince has a problem: his daughter Anna is crazy, or rather so he believes. So to get rid of his daughter, he orders Anna to marry Petr. Petr returns home and brings his new wife with him (and another daughter Irina will be born after a while). Anna joins this family and has the task of raising Vasja, but unfortunately, as often happens, the two don’t get along.

We follow Vasja as she grows up and her vicissitudes against the patriarchal society that would only want her married or in a convent.

The book is divided into three parts, the chapters are not very long and it is written in the third person. There are many Russian terms, which are all explained at the end of the book or as footnotes. Despite Russian terms it is not difficult to understand. It is very dense with descriptions but I found it fluent enough that I read it in 3 days.



Vasja is the main character, first a girl and then a teenager who has the power to see the spirits of the house, present in Russian folk tales. She sees the spirit of the oven, of the lake, of the stable, but at the beginning it isn’t a problem because the whole village is full of people who honour these spirits, also leaving food for them although they cannot see them. All this ends when a new priest arrives, Konstantin who puts the fear of God in the population, not knowing that this terror will “feed” the Bear. Vasja tries to help these spirits anyway because he knows that if something worse doesn’t help them he will hit the village. The girl is not beautiful, she has large green eyes that are slightly distant from each other, long black hair and limbs that are a little too long. But these limbs will help her learn to ride, even better than men.

Dunja is the nanny who tells a different story each evening, especially one that will be important for Vasja’s story. She is a strong figure who will help Vasja to become a woman and who understands that the girl is like her mother.

Vasja’s father and brothers are still very old-fashioned (we are in the 1300s) so they try to teach to Vasja all those principles given by their society (marriages, obedience to her husband, give birth repeatably etc).

Anna, like Vasja, sees the spirits of the house but believes that they are manifestations of the devil and therefore asks Father Konstantin for help.

Father Konstantin is somewhat the antagonist. He believes that Vasja is possessed by the devil who must be removed from the village and her stepmother will help him in this. He is clearly a tormented character, who is perhaps afraid of deluding God himself and who thinks he is doing good even if from our point of view, since we know the story, we see that he hurts people.

Also there are the two characters that Vasja meets in the forest as a child, two brothers, one surely bad who is about to be freed and the other who in some aspects looks good, but for others he looks bad. The latter, Morozko, is the one who trapped his brother and who wants him to remain so.

What I think

I like the fairytale environment and I read it for that reason. It seems a bit of a horror genre since there are evil spirits and even vampires. I really like Vasja and I really like how the spirits are described and the fact that the protagonist speaks with horses. Vasja, as mentioned, tries to rebel against this patriarchal society (or chauvinist as far as I am concerned) and throughout the novel she remains of her idea of ​​not wanting to marry or become a nun.

I’d rather die in the forest tomorrow than live a life that was chosen for me for a hundred years.

I love this sentence (I translated it from Italan, don’t know if they are the correct words).

I must say that I did not expect spirits and vampires, because they are not really my forte but I have not found this book too focused on this fact, indeed the “undead” are present only for the last part of the book and the fundamental point is the battle between the bear and the nightingale and what Vasja has to do with them.

There are many points that are not answered in this book and I think that to have a clear picture you have to read the whole trilogy (because I forgot to say that this is the first book of a trilogy). For example Morozko says something in reference to Vasja, if I remember correctly “(Vasja) does not yet remember” or even the fact that Vasja looks like the king of the sea but we never see this king.

The book is well done, the cover is beautiful and even when you remove the dust jacket the book is very nice.

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