This is the first book in the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden and I adore it.
The book begins just before our central character Vasya is born and a huge chunk of the story follows her growth to young adulthood. On Arden’s website there is a prologue which didn’t make the final edits before publication; this was fabulous to find after finishing the trilogy and I enjoyed it knowing the outcome of the first meeting of Vasya’s fated mother. ‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ reads like an adult fairy-tale and its prose is lush; you really feel the isolation of the communities and their yearly battle with the unforgiving winter. The novel is set in a medieval Russia and is steeped in folklore – another central and otherworldly figure amidst all this is the Winter King, Morozko AKA The Frost Demon. He is a constant underscore throughout the book beginning with a delightful winter’s tale around the fireside, warning those listening of the dangers of coming across him in the winter world. From myth to ‘man’; it is his relationship with Vasya – the child born to the Vladimirovich family that is at the heart of this story.
Throughout the book, we are introduced to other creatures that can only been seen by a few (those with the second sight) and it’s these that Vasya begins different friendships and relationships with; in turn they become a part of developing who she is, and who she will become, over the course of the three books. I loved these bizarre little sprites and guardians of nature popping up all over the place some grumpy, some mischievous or others keen to help.
Vasya is a fabulous character, spirited and adventurous. It’s a delight to follow her journey as she resists conforming to the life of a female at the time, to be married off, to keep a house and to raise children. Her desire to live, to travel and be who she wants to be is fabulous; this girl has a strong will and her adventures provide the drive throughout the main narrative, through laughter, hurt, joy, injustice, cruelty, anguish and ultimately love, of her choice no matter the difficulties. And there are certainly many challenging obstacles to face throughout this trilogy! My goodness!
There’s a multitude of themes and one dominant one for me is religion and how this can become dangerous; there are characters who follow different choices about their beliefs and there are stark warnings within these pages for extreme beliefs and their corruptions. The character of Father Konstantin being particularly well written by Arden; his journey is vast and we feel so much towards him during these books.
As you can tell, I just loved this book; it is so detailed and well written; it takes a while for Vasya to grow and the story to really develop but I loved that about it, as I really came to understand and love Arden’s wintry world and those who live within it. Of course, I purchased the second two books immediately and devoured them…but more about that later.
A highly recommended read for fantasy, fairy-tales (of the darker variety) and folklore. Read it!