A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik's Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman's myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn't mind--she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse's fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa's mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa's new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa's stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed--this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse's most frightening tales.
About the Author
Born in Texas, Katherine studied French and Russian at Middlebury College. She has lived abroad in France and in Moscow, among other places. She has also lived in Hawaii, where she wrote much of The Bear and the Nightingale. She currently lives in Vermont.
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This was on my to-read list, and at 2 bucks on Kindle, I had to jump in this month.
Random thoughts at 25%:
I'm liking it so far. Early on, character development didn't seem sufficient for me to be invested in the info-dumps, and for a while I had trouble keeping the names straight. Some of the side plots aren't quite yet rivetting, but I'm definitely interested in Vasya's story. Frost is written well, giving a tangibleness to the overall fairytale culture of the setting. Really wanna know what's going on with Anna's demons as well.
Arden's prose elegant and easy to read. I'm hoping this is one that grows increasingly complex before weaving together nicely in the end.
I'm completely enthralled. Around the halfway mark, the story's pace really hits stride. Since that point, the foreboding tension has been high, to the point where it feels like the climax is just around the corner.
Arden has really honed the main characters. My favorite trait of Vasya's is her honest clarity when it comes to beliefs and Konstantin; she seems to know the priest better than he knows himself. The scenes written through Konstantin's perspective are surprisingly captivating. I love to hate him, but I want to know what he's thinking. And, boy, Anna is not who I thought she was going to be, from the poor girl traded for marriage into basically the wicked stepmother from Hansel & Gretel.
The setting is immersive. Other than American God's portrayal of Czernobog, I was ignorant of any Russian folklore. Arden really brings the spirits to life. I enjoy how they're neither benevolent nor wholly malicious.
I've also enjoyed Arden's writing in general. The fairytale story-telling is done well with her ... musical prose? It just seems to have a comforting rhythm to it.
Fingers crossed for a great ending, and this could wind up being one of my favorites.
Around the 20% mark (I was only going to read a couple of chapters to settle my thoughts before bed).
Absolutely loving it.
In terms of the narrative, not a great deal has happened and it’s definitely a slow starter but the prose has this beautiful, fantastical, story telling and almost lyrical feel to it that has me transfixed. Reading it makes me feel like I’m one of the children in that opening scene listening to my old nurse telling me a somewhat scary bedtime story.
Great ending, if much more epic than I expected. Most of the buildup read like a gothic novel, with it's riddles and creepy but beautiful imagery. Then, the payoff was a battle worthy of high fantasy.
Morozko's fir grove is worth mentioning. 'The house that wasn't there' was magical as the dream-like illusions from The Night Circus. Also liked Morozko's explanation of magic (the straw and brush). I want to see if Vasya finds her inner-witch in the sequels.
One thing I'm torn about: It didn't seem that Konstantin got his just desserts, though it was in Vasya's character to let him off easy. I'm not saying I wanted to see him stoned, but rather he find humility in an epiphany of his erroneous ways. However, this being the first book of a trilogy, I'm glad he may yet have a part to play. He's definitely a complex character.
This has been mentioned a couple times so far, but the prose is one of my favorite aspects of the book, a fairy tale recitation all the way through. I think it helped me through the slow start. I could listen to Arden paraphrasing my tax forms.
Whelp - couldn't put that down, so you're getting all of my thoughts in one go.
Absolutely loved it. Nico already mentioned it, but I think my favourite thing about the novel was the tone. Arden manages to keep something of that old world Russia, fairy tale recitation feeling to the prose throughout, and it's a joy to read.
The novel definitely starts off slowly. There's a lot to take in, but I think that's probably a natural consequence of the author sticking as closely as she can to established history and folklore. Once we're through those initial 'orientation' chapters and we're familiar with the characters, though, the book takes off running. I was genuinely invested in every character, including the antagonists - Konstantin was a compelling villain, as was Anna, and her shift from tormented daughter to spiteful stepmother was beautifully executed. Similarly, Morozko and The Bear are wonderfully complex, and far more interesting than a more traditional binary where the 'hero' is everything good and the 'villain' is everything bad.
Like Nico said, the House that Was and Was Not There took me back to the Night Circus, and the magic system ("Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.") was great. I'm looking forward to seeing how that's explored in the next book, because there's no way in hell that I can stop this series now that I've started.
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Also finished, and I come bearing a discussion question for those of us who have completed the book.
To what degree is the character of Konstantin sympathetic? Does his passionate faith excuse his actions? Is he an unwitting dupe or a willing player in his own fall? Do his charisma and artistic talent conflict with or complement his vocation as a priest? Why?
Is he sympathetic? Konstantin doesn't (usually) like seeing others suffer, but I don't think it messes up his day, either. He has a moral structure he believes he adheres to, and wanting the best for others is part of that, but at the end of the day, he's out for numero uno. I believe he would only experience true sympathy for someone he holds dear.
Does his faith excuse his actions? No. Just no. I think it's a wonderful thing if someone has faith for the right reasons, but once you believe you're the hand of God, well, that's brought about the worst hours in history.
Is he a dupe or willing player in his fall? Well, he reminds me of a child who eats cake before supper, then has to lie about it, then has to hide the crumb-covered plate, etc. I think on some level Konstantin recognizes he's bending the rules for, as he sees it, the greater good. But it winds up snowballing until he's backed into a corner. Another point is that Konstantin has a talent for convincing even himself of things. In example, it was Vasya's doing that raised in him impure thoughts. Even when reading in the priest's perspective, he is certain that nothing is his fault. Well, at least until he realizes he's working for the devil. But that is the best villain: one who truly believes they're righteous.
Do charisma and talent conflict or compliment his priesthood? In Konstantin's case, I'd have to say he misuses his charisma. He manipulates Anna for his own needs and leads the village into fear and shame. His talent is a pro, I guess. I can't recall a time when Arden used it to show character flaw.