Book Review - The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

'Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.'
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.
But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods...
Atmospheric and enchanting, with an engrossing adventure at its core, The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for readers of Naomi Novik's Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman.

The Bear and the Nightingale begins with an old lady sat by an oven, telling a fairy tale to four children. And that's what this book is, a fairy tale set in old Russia and the sort of book that begs to be read curled up by the fire with the wind howling outside. The four children are the offspring of Pyotr Vladimirovich, boyar of lands in the wilderness of the country. He is married to Marina, daughter of Ivan I and his mysterious wife said to be able to tame animals, dream the future, and summon rain. Pyotr and Marina's fifth child, Vasilisa (Vasya) is born during the screaming winds of November and her mother dies shortly afterwards. She grows to be, 'an ugly little girl:skinny as a reed-stem with long-fingered hands and enormous feet'.' but with 'eyes the colour of the forest during a summer thunderstorm,'. She is a wild, headstrong girl at a time when young women were supposed to become obedient wives or join the convent. Vasya, though sees house and forest spirits and learns to talk with horses. Life changes irrevocably for Vasya with the arrival of her stepmother and an impossibly handsome and ambitious young priest. Although Russia has converted to Christianity the old beliefs still persist and families leave offerings for their domovoi (house spirit) but Father Konstantin convinces them they are demons and stokes the fear of the villagers causing them to renounce their old ways and mistrust those who don't. As crops fail, death comes more often to a village that already struggles with its long, harsh winters. Evil is at large, Vasya knows it but what can she do when people believe she is a witch?
There is so much to love about The Bear and the Nightingale, old Russia with its realities of a life shaped by the seasons in a harsh environment is evocatively brought to life. Katherine Arden has a magical way with words, 
'But the wind remained. Harder and harder it blew, wordless, flinging clouds across the moon, and the wind smelled blessedly of snow.'
Vasya's family may live in a time and place very different from our own but their relationship to each other is still somehow deeply familiar. They tease, fight, love and worry and just their ordinary domestic lives, their unrelenting struggle to survive another year is a completely immersive story even before the fantasy element is added. It is the fantasy though that lies at the heart of this book, from the spirits Vasya communicates with - the domovoi, vodianoy, vazila and rusalka - to Morozko, the frost-demon, to something or someone even more terrifying, The Bear and The Nightingale is a rich folkloric fairy tale that wove its magic around me. I just wish then that the final part of the book didn't feel quite so rushed. I had been gently drawn in by the story, the pace of the first two thirds of the book feel quite slow and the darkness that threatens Vasya and her community is more hinted at than expressed. As the truth is revealed I was initially enthralled but then it just felt as if it petered out. Storylines were unfinished and the ending itself while intriguing didn't feel right. If a sequel is planned then it all makes much more sense but as a standalone book I felt that although not everything needs to be said, some of what was missed out meant for a less satisfying conclusion than ideally I'd have liked. However, despite these reservations and minor disappointment I did really enjoy the book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and fancies a change from elves and dragons.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy, received through Netgalley in return for my review.

The Bear and the Nightingale is published in the UK by Del Rey, a Penguin UK imprint.