This is a story of bears clashing with nightingales, of spells and sapphires, sea kings and swan maidens. In this tale brothers Morozoko and Medved do battle, their fates hitched to the wings of a tiny songbird—a girl born from magical lines into a centuries old prophecy.
“The Bear and the Nightingale” begins on a cold winter night deep in the heart of the Russian wilderness. The Vladrovich clan clusters around their hearth to hear stories about frost-demons and maidens, tales so ancient that not even the Vladrovich’s nurse, Dunya (a believer in the old ways), knows how true they really are. As Christianity spreads across the land and the old ways are abandoned, the youngest of the Vladrovich clan must find the magic within herself to save her family and village from unseen evils brewing in the wilderness.
Vasilisa Vladrovich, born to Pytor Vladrovich, a boyar in the for north of Rus’ (Russia), is the granddaughter of a sorceress, and contains a wildness even her heavily Christian stepmother cannot tame. Vasilisa’s birth mother, herself the progeny of an enchantress and king, foresaw her magical daughter and lived just long enough to see her vision’s fruition.
“You will be born three times: once of illusions, once of flesh, and once of spirit.” Vasilisa is just a child when the guardian spirit of her family’s bathhouse, Bannick, delivers this edict. You will be born three times and you will choose death. No one seems less likely to choose death than Vasilisa, whose zest for life and fun and mischief make her a favorite with her father and among her siblings. Yet she also carries immense bravery, a strong sense of right and wrong, and the magic she inherited from her grandmother.
Politics, and the desires of men, dictate the lives of Vasilisa and the other women surrounding her. Vasilisa’s sister marries a prince, a stranger, at the king’s behest, and Pytor Vladrovich’s own second marriage to Anna, also the daughter of the king, is just as calculated. Anna inspires empathy despite her role as an embittered step-mother: She is a woman who fears her own gifts as those of the devil, and wishes only to surround herself with the protection of Christianity. The men in Vasilisa’s life, while loving, continually underestimate her. This is a story about the battles between Christianity and traditional lore, about the need of men to control women and about the power of women to break away from such a hold. Men underestimate a woman, even when a prophecy bestows her with preternatural powers, just as Christianity underestimates the power in the old ways.
This is a beautiful, assured debut as timeless as the Russian folklore the story draws from. Arden blends the history of Christianity in Russia with folklore in a story that both captivates and delivers deep truths about the battles between good and evil, the past and present, and men and women. This book is perfect for readers of “Uprooted” and “The Mists of Avalon,” but will also appeal to those less familiar with fantasy. Strong heroines, elements of history and lore, and a beautiful, wild and foreign setting help move this story beyond the genre of fantasy.