The Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

Goddammit. I have a confession to make: I have had this book on my shelf for years. I don’t even know how many. It has been that long. It is a founding member of the “I keep meaning to read that” TBR, and it was #1 on my #ReadMyShelf2024 challenge list by virtue of author surname. It has, in short, been in considerable danger every time I’ve gone through my shelves looking for books to unhaul, and I really was hoping I wouldn’t like it enough to pursue the rest of the trilogy. Welp, now I’ve finally read it, and I didn’t even get 100 pages into it before I ordered books two and three, so I guess we’re doing this.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a Russian spin on the classic girl-gets-evil-stepmother tale, only in this case the girl has a gift for talking to demons. Her name is Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna, and she is the youngest child of the boyar Pyotr Vladimirovich, lord of the remote northern village Lesnaya Zemlya, and his beloved first wife, Marina Ivanova, the daughter of Grand Prince Ivan I and a wild woman who was thought to be a witch. Their first four children – Nikolai “Kolya” Petrovich; Aleksandr “Sasha” Petrovich; Olga Petrovna; and Alyosha Petrovich – are perfectly normal, though Sasha wants to become a priest, which is a little unusual in this time and place. Vasya’s birth is different: Marina knows that her fifth child will inherit the strange magic of her grandmother, and that she herself will die in childbirth. She turns out to be right about both of these things, but chooses Vasya’s life over her own. Motherless and filled with a wild power neither she nor her family can understand, Vasya is primarily raised by Avdotya “Dunya” Mikhailovna, the Petrovichs’ housekeeper and nanny. But she is also partially raised by the supernatural beings who surround her, from the rusalka who inhabits the local pond to the demons who secretly guard her house, and she befriends them even as she and her family regularly attend church and consult with their in-house priest, Father Semyon.

It would be an innocent enough childhood, were it not for forces beyond anyone’s control. Vasya is stalked by Morozko, the frost king, who takes a strong interest in her, but he actually turns out to be the least objectionable member of his known family, because his one-eyed brother Medved (bear-shaped, and therefore probably inspired by the Russian preved meme) has begun to wake up from an enchanted hibernation. When six-year-old Vasya briefly goes missing during a frightening encounter with both Medved and Morozko, Sasha warns their father that she will become unmanageable without a mother to keep an eye on her. Pyotr, badly frightened himself by Vasya’s disappearance, takes Kolya and Sasha to Moscow to visit the Grand Prince Ivan II, half-brother to Marina. Though Ivan II is not particularly welcoming, he does recognize his kinsmen, and he accepts their presence in his court. While Kolya personally acquaints himself with every unattached woman in the palace and Sasha tries to join a Christian monastery, Pyotr works to secure the family’s political position. His efforts seem to bear fruit when Ivan offers his nephew Vladimir Andreevitch as a groom for Olga: Vladimir is the Prince of Serpukhov and the dearest companion of Ivan’s son Dmitrii, and he is a far higher match than Pyotr could ever have dreamed of. He is less pleased when he learns that Ivan also wishes to be rid of his own teenaged daughter, a girl scarcely older than Pyotr’s sons. To refuse would be dangerous, however, and to ask what is wrong with Ivan’s daughter would be worse, so he resigns himself to his forced marriage, reasoning that his new bride will at least bring considerable political benefits.

This is a bad assumption, because Anna Ivanova is thought to be mad. Like Vasya, she can see the supernatural beings who inhabit their world. Unlike Vasya, she is convinced that these beings are devils. Her only respite is the church, and, as a result, she is rigid in her faith and unwilling to compromise on matters relating to God. Given her constant screechings about demons sewing in corners, her marriage is both politically savvy and deeply practical. For her part, Anna Ivanova is crushed when her father rejects her request to be committed to a convent, and she goes on to become a profoundly unhappy wife. Things only get worse for her when she arrives in Lesnaya Zemlya: her stepdaughter is patently not suited to be groomed either for marriage or for the convent, the only two options available to young women, and the house is filled with demons, destroying any chance she might have had at stability. Her only joy is her daughter Irina, a sweet girl without any trace of the supernatural, but even this isn’t enough to balance the mental scales. She is particularly disturbed by the domovoi, a little demon who lives in the oven and carries out small domestic chores in exchange for regular offerings of bread and milk, and she immediately cracks down on all traces of non-Christian worship. (If I can scoot in here for a quick aside, I really don’t know what Anna Ivanova’s problem is. If I had a little demon in my house who would come out at night and wash my dishes and mend my clothes and all he wanted was bread and milk, I would load up his oven with loaves of bread and gallons of milk. Like literally I would hire that dude in a heartbeat.)

This is a problem, because the domovoi and his compatriots are the village’s best – and only – line of defense against Medved, who has been steadily gaining strength despite Morozko’s efforts to contain him. With his limited power, Medved manages to break free of his prison and makes his way into the human world to seduce Father Konstantin Nikonovich, a charismatic young priest who was quietly expelled from Moscow by the Metropolitan Aleksei and forced to move to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the now deceased Father Semyon. Smarting over his unceremonious expulsion and resenting his new position, which can only be described as a demotion, Konstantin convinces himself that he is hearing the voice of God. Meanwhile, the fourteen-year-old Vasya tries to keep the old customs alive through secret offerings, but Anna Ivanova’s zero-tolerance policies have left the village’s defenses seriously depleted, and she is backed by Konstantin, who is both terrified of Vasya and unwillingly infatuated with her. Wanting to get rid of the troublesome girl, who is already reputed to be a witch, they try to ship her off to a convent while Pyotr is away, but she escapes at the last minute and disappears into the forest surrounding the village, where she is taken in by Morozko. While recuperating in Morozko’s house, she is introduced to Solovey, a nightingale who has now taken the form of a horse, and he decides to accompany her back to the human world.

Back at the village, Konstantin finally realizes that he has not, in fact, been touched by God, and that he has been swindled by an impostor. Knowing that this blunder will ruin him if revealed to the village, he hastily agrees to sacrifice a witch in order to free himself from Medved. Unbeknownst to Konstantin, Medved feeds upon fear, and he has grown powerful on the terror that Konstantin has created with his fire and brimstone sermons. He had originally intended to use Vasya as the final key to his freedom, but Konstantin realizes that Anna Ivanova, who is widely known for her terror of demons, also qualifies as a witch. He therefore tricks her into accompanying him into the forest, where Medved kills her, removing his final shackle. Vasya and Solovey return in time to make a defiant stand against Medved, together with Morozko, Alyosha, and the army of demons Vasya has been secretly feeding for the last several years, but the surprise MVP turns out to be Pyotr, who challenges Medved alone without fully knowing or caring what he is. Seeing his children in danger, Pyotr offers his own life in exchange for theirs, and unknowingly seals Medved’s bond once again with his sacrifice.

In the aftermath of her father’s death, Vasya finally goes to Konstantin, taking Morozko along as her muscle, and expels him from her village under pain of death. Alyosha promises to protect her against both the convent and the uncomfortable rumors spread by the villagers, but Vasya knows that her continued presence will hinder him as he establishes himself as a lord in his own right, heir to a portion of their father’s lands, just as surely as she knows that she can tolerate neither marriage nor the nunnery. With no one left to stop her and a supernatural horse by her side, Vasya chooses to leave the village to make her own fortune. Though her plan is to see the world, her first stop is the house of Morozko, where she is welcomed with open arms.

I have a request: if it is at all possible, please can we uproot Konstantin from this book the minute he outlives his usefulness and transfer him to The Marriage Portrait, where he will then be brutally strangled to death by Alfonso II and Baldassare while Emilia escapes to Venice with Lucrezia? Fine, just thought I’d ask.

Anyway, I spent a solid 3/4 of the book wishing Konstantin would just fucking die, but other than that this story is a delight. I love fairy tales and I love retellings, and I love a good wintry vibe, and this book has supplied me with all three. Vasya is a wonderful heroine, magical and fearless and gratifyingly smart. She is also sweet and sassy without ever behaving stupidly, and she loves her family and fights like hell to protect them. I love her relationships with her siblings, particularly Sasha, Alyosha, and Irina. I love the absence of a tiresome female rivalry: Anna Ivanova is who she is, of course, but her attitude does not impact Vasya’s love for Irina, or vice versa, and I really appreciate that. I mostly want to feel sorry for Anna Ivanova, though she does make this difficult. She has a role, and she fills it. Yet even though her part is thankless and her character is far more one-dimensional than I think Arden intended, she isn’t without her better qualities. She loves her daughter; she genuinely believes the village will be better off if she suppresses all non-Christian faiths; she isn’t crazy. As much as I dislike her, both for her personality and the abuse she showers upon Vasya, I do like that she isn’t crazy for the sake of being crazy. The things she sees are real, and they legitimately terrify her. I personally am not sure why the sight of a little demon quietly sewing in the corner should send anyone into a hysterical frenzy, but I was not raised in a Christian household, and the presence of a sewing demon would not make me think I’d suddenly been damned.

As for Anna’s murderer: I obviously can’t stand Konstantin and in fact was rooting for the rusalka to devour him (damn Vasya and her pesky conscience), but I will admit that Arden handles his character well. He starts as a stuck-up city priest, and, while this doesn’t really change, he gradually unravels as his controlled world comes apart at the seams. His attraction to Vasya is superbly creepy. His fascination with her intertwines with his repulsion towards his own secret lust and his desire to control her by any means necessary, exacerbated by his increasing conviction that he is meant to personally guide her to his God. All of this gives him a powerful Hellfire vibe, and I’m not mad. (But also, if this was not actually inspired by Disney’s Frollo, and if Konstantin was based on someone more close to home: lustful priests, y’all need to get your shit together. You’re creeping the rest of us out.) With that said, I still think he was around for too long, and I am disappointed that he didn’t die, though it’s possible Vasya will have a chance for a rematch in the next two books. All the same, he makes for a complex, unlikable villain, as was clearly the point, and I can’t really complain about that.

One thing that I wish had been less prominent: the physical abuse. It doesn’t happen every page and in fact Pyotr rarely beats his children, but I don’t appreciate his decision to thrash his daughter just after she’d saved Kolya’s son from almost certain death. His reasoning has more to do with his own fear than it does with Vasya’s behavior: while he is grateful to her for her actions, he is also terrified on her behalf, knowing as he does that Morozko has his eye on her. It is this fear that drives him first to betroth her to a completely unsuitable man, and then to try to ship her off to a convent, though Anna Ivanova and Konstantin accelerate the timeline of her departure without his knowledge or consent. But I hate that he takes out his terror on her, ostensibly because the dramatic rescue of her nephew completely humiliated her fiancé. Who fucking cares about this dude? He is made of red flags. His horse is terrified of him, he’ll sleep with anything in a skirt, he sexually assaults Vasya in the stable when nobody is looking, the list goes on. More than all of that, I would have thought that the life of a child would be more important than one man’s pride. The fact that he breaks off the betrothal immediately after the rescue says more about him than I ever could. I am glad Vasya doesn’t end up with him. He doesn’t deserve her.

Despite this one blip in an otherwise loving father-daughter relationship, this book was the easiest five stars I’ve given this year, though I have to admit that it is far darker than I expected. I low-key thought it was YA, and it is not. Among other things, it includes child abuse, sexual assault, and spousal rape; and yet it doesn’t come across as grim or overly miserable, because Arden’s writing contains a mischievous humor that makes the book so lovely to read. The writing is gorgeous, the world and the characters are compelling, the folklore beautifully integrated with actual history in a wholly fresh, imaginative story. The good stepdaughter/evil stepmother trope may be a tale as old as time, but it has gotten its second wind with this book, and I can’t wait to read more.