One of our #CannonBookClub prompts asked if there’s any special power in taking a known story and envisioning it in a new way, and for me the answer is a resounding yes. Whether its something along the lines of Longbourn where characters who are merely set dressing in the original tale are given the limelight or something like The Bear and the Nightingale where history and folktales are put into a blender, metaphorically, and something new arrives there is more often than not an engaging experience waiting.
The Bear and The Nightingale is, at its heart, the story of Vasya. She is the youngest daughter of lord of a remote village. Before dying, Vasya’s mother tells her father that just like her grandmother before her, Vasya will be special. The villagers have always left offerings for the various forest and household spirits but Vasya is actually able to see and speak with them. The trouble begins when Vasya’s father returns from Moscow with his second wife, a stepmother for Vasya, daughter of the prince and also able to see spirits – but she interprets them as demons. Political machinations in Moscow lead to a new priest being sent to their village and Father Konstantin frightens the villagers into abandoning the old spirits. Crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest come nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasya’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent. Vasya does her best to stay true to herself and cause as little trouble as possible, often by absenting herself. As danger closes in though, Vasya must choose to act for what she knows is right, even if it means defying her loved ones, so the people she loves can be protected from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
The story in The Bear and the Nightingale is my favorite kind of low fantasy: fantastical elements rooted in historical fact. Arden writes well, you’re not lost in or distracted by the details- they just fill in the background, much like the forest just outside the village. Arden builds her story universe in a way that keeps it grounded, with a realistic feel. In our book club Zoom I mentioned that this book starts about six times, and it does in a way, but each of those layers is important in giving that realistic feeling.
The story is very character driven, with a strong emphasis on familial love and duty. Vasya becomes the center of the storm, where various other character’s expectations and needs collide. If her characterization wasn’t so well done, the story would be much less successful. There are weak points – plot threads that remained unresolved, an imbalance in the pacing of the story, but nothing that prevents this from being a good, enjoyable read. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy, and while I am interested to see where things pick back up with Morozco and Vasya now that the seeming “big bad” is dealt with, and what the cost of that victory is, I’m in no rush. Which is why I’m choosing to keep this at 3 stars.
Personal gripe – while there are both a bear and a nightingale in the story, I’m not sure they deserve top billing.
Bingo Square: Book Club (our very own Fairytales Adaptations book club)