The Bear and the Nightingale by Kathrene Arden
by Anantha Rusum
The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book of the Winternight Trilogy, a historical fantasy based on the Russian folklore. It is about a little girl Vasya, who grows up listening to the fairy tales her care taker tells her and discovers that she can communicate to the nature spirits around her, the ones who guard the household, the stables, the water, and the fire.
A young priest, Konstantin, resolute in his faith in God, is driven away from Moscow to the cold Northern Lands as he was gaining the popularity which is considered a threat to the Grand Prince. When he arrives in the fertile soil of Lesnaya Zemlya, Konstantin sees Vasya and her stepmother, Anna, communicating to the nature spirits. He starts believing that the place is infested with "demons" and it is his responsibility to drive them away. To cover up his attraction towards Vasya, he starts believing that she is a witch on the side of evil. Under his influence, her stepmother Anna and the rest of the villagers also come to the same conclusion against her.
Vasya's father Potyr, the landlord of the North, her care taker Dunya and her youngest brother Alyosha try to protect her, but Vasya's rebellious nature and free spirit are unstoppable. Vasya's mother Marina was born of supernatural blood and Vasya's fate is tied to Morozko, the Frost God. And eventually, she ends up at the door of Morozko who has been searching for her for quite some time. The book ends with Morozko battling his evil twin, the Bear, who had got stronger with the weakening of the nature spirits.
Set in the time when Christianity was gaining popularity in Russia, this book touches the age-old feud between Christianity and Paganism. It is my personal opinion that certain medieval feuds remain favorite topics in fantasy writing and it is quite unfortunate that the self-restraint and faith of God are depicted in a rigid and negative outlook. But if we can overlook this, the book is a brilliant piece of work. As one flips through the pages, medieval Russia comes vividly alive before the eyes. The cold ruthless winters covered with snow, the delicate spring with the golden sun rays, the short pleasant summers and the breathtaking fall are so beautifully described. One gets a chance to know about the Russian lifestyle which includes their attire, their staple food which primarily comprises of cold meat, pie, and cheese, their commute, horses and sleds, the houses they live in, their church structures, the icon paintings of the Angels and the Saints and so on and so forth.
Coming to the characters, Vasya is so vibrant and free-spirited, you cannot help falling in love with her. Her brothers, Sasha (though he does not have much role in the first book) and Alyosha and her father Potyr come across as very amenable people. Konstantin, on the other hand, is a very keen observer and follower of rules. He proves himself a worthy adversary to Vasya.
To summarize, it is a book which is hard to put down. The only qualm I have is that certain religious beliefs should have been left alone. It has a gripping story and all the elements of a historical fantasy novel. I cannot wait to finish the trilogy. ***