The Bear and the Nightingale: Independent Heroines, Folkloric Settings, and the Struggle for Personal Freedom

Image: Random House

Genre: YA fantasy

Synopsis: In Lesnaya Zemlya, the old religion coexists with the new, both of them in practice by the people of the land. This is the world Vasilisa grows up in. She attends church, then leaves offerings for the spirits of the land and household. Moreso, unlike the rest of her community, she can see and speak with these spirits.

Then her father brings home a new wife, a deeply religious woman who also sees the same spirits Vasilisa does–and is terrified of them. A new priest arrives, a young man who decides the people must turn away from any hint of the old religion. Things change, the spirits grow weak, and Vasilisa watches as things start to go horribly wrong. She must save her people from an awakening danger…but how much difference can one girl really make?

Series: Debut book, stands alone.

POV: Third person.

Preview: Here.

I received an ARC of this book at New York Comic Con–it’ll be on sale January 17th, 2017.

This story was really engaging. It reads like a fairy tale retelling, though to my knowledge, it isn’t one. Many characters come from Slavic folklore, and the book is set in a historical Russia, at the intersection of Byzantine influences and the control by the Golden Horde.

There’s a bit of an otherworldly quality about this book. It covers a lot of ground while still managing to be deep and straightforward, following Vasilisa’s story alongside the changes in her family. Following the transformation of a friendly, open community, into one driven by fear and distrustfulness.

Vasilisa grows up in a world that doesn’t quite accept her as she is, but in a relatively tolerant family. As she gets older, she begins feeling the constraints of her society, the narrow choices available for her future. Into an already tense time of her life, enter the fantasy elements. She stands out more because she sees what others can’t. This only becomes worse for her when her stepmother and a charismatic priest step into the picture, and their characterization reveals a lot about the subtlety of the book.

The priest and the stepmother reflect archetypes we expect to see in stories like this, but there’s a lot more to them. The stepmother has the same ability Vasilisa has, to see household spirits and such, but she interprets it differently. She thinks she’s cursed to see devils, and gravitates towards churches because those are the only places they aren’t. Her cruelty is driven by her fear–and possibly by how dismissive everyone in her life has been of her. She’s always either a burden or an afterthought.

The priest believes in his religion, and also believes quite a bit in himself. He’s driven by a deep sense of pride and importance, though he tells himself that the reverence he desires from people isn’t for his own sake–it’s for God. Despite his misplaced ego, he generally isn’t trying to harm anyone. Even when he identifies Vasilisa as the least affected by his sermons and his charisma, even when he tells himself there is something strange about her, he still wants to save her. He’s causing harm in pursuit of his own pride, but he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

This aspect of his character could have made him momentarily sympathetic, but it also further accentuated his flaws. Because while he isn’t looking to vilify everyone who disagrees with them, while he wants to bring them around to his notion of enlightenment, he never considers Vasilisa’s perspective to be as important as his own. He adopts a patronizing way of thinking about her. And at least part of why he wants to save her, is because he doesn’t like that she won’t look at him in awe, the way everyone else does. He can get the rest of the community to adore him, except her, and he wants that additional validation from her–from her specifically. Considering his character journey, how Vasilisa finally deals with him is incredibly appropriate.

Which plays into how the story isn’t only about the irrationality of fear–it’s also about an independent young woman who understands herself and the world she lives in, surrounded by people who think they know better. Who think they know who she should be, and what she should want. Some of them have good intentions, but get it so very wrong. Others prioritize their own best interests, considering only how Vasilisa fits into their lives. All of them, though, try to control her and deny her agency. 

The theme is familiar, and handled deftly enough so as not to be an agonizing read. Instead, it works as an affirmation that no matter what other people think they know, no one has the right to overwrite your reality. Overall, a powerful and compelling read.