This was not quite what I was expecting. I think I was expecting something more along the lines of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, because people have compared them endlessly, but aside from taking inspiration from Russian folklore, the two books don’t have very much in common. Uprooted is a fairytale, albeit one that is lengthened and deepened. The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy that is historical fiction first, fantasy second.
This book takes place in medieval Russia, then called Rus’. The daughter of the prince of Moscow is married off to a rural boyar (Russian aristocracy) because her mother was a witch, and they want the daughter of the witch away and forgotten about. Marina and Pyotr are happy and have four children, three boys and a girl. But Marina wants a fifth child, a girl who will be like her mother was, and knowing that she will die in childbirth, goes through with the pregnancy anyway. The result is Vasilisa Petrovna, a homely and gangly girl who makes everyone uncomfortable. They call her “little frog” when she is small. She is wild and willful. When she is six, her father travels to Moscow to find a wife who can take care of her, hoping to control or tame her somehow. What he brings home is an unwilling gift from the prince, a woman who sees demons and whose only wish is to go into a convent. Instead, she is forced to marry Pyotr and live in the wilderness. There are demons everywhere, and her youngest stepchild seems to be in collusion with them.
I saw a couple of reviewers describe this as a slow burn fantasy, and I think that’s accurate. We are really immersed in the atmosphere of daily life in rural Rus’. We watch Vasya grow up, we get to know her siblings and her nurse and her father, and even her stepmother. We are steeped in their culture and beliefs, just in time for an outsider to come in and change everything, for the worse. It’s hard to point to one specific plot point here and explain what was so enjoyable to read. It’s a lot of small details adding up over time. But in the end it’s Vasya’s differences that enable her to save the day, her strong personality and self-knowledge, and her courage.
I will most definitely be reading the rest of this series.
Read Harder Challenge 2018: A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa).