The Bear and the Nightingale – Life in the Rus’ of 14th century

I finally finished The Witcher Saga a few months ago, after a decade of waiting for translations. On top of that, I found and started running a Pathfinder adventure path (a long term pre-written campaign) called Reign of Winter (don’t read the book summaries unless you’re willing to be spoiled) because of it seeming utterly insane story wise and being heavily influenced by Slavic folklore, and concerning one of the most well known of the characters in it: Baba Yaga. All of these things just falling upon my lap has lead me into just becoming fascinated by fairy tales, particularly those of Slavic origin. To feed this new fascination, I decided that I wanted to both read into the original fairy tales, and the history and culture of various Slavic cultures. For the time being, I’ve ended up focusing on Russia. So much so that I’ve even started studying Russian – something for which I’ve been looking for an excuse for a while. But before I started doing that, I bought three books inspired by said folklore: The Bear and the Nightingale, Uprooted, and Deathless. I decided to start with the first one on that list.

It’s got a very striking cover.

Despite the close proximity to Russia, I’m very poorly educated on their history. It came to me somewhat as a surprise that before a unified Russia became into existence, the region mostly consisted of local lords and grand princes paying tribute to the Golden Horde khanate between the 13th and the 16th centuries. The setting of the book is about 200 years before the unification of Russia into a tsardom, during the 14th century, mainly to the lands north of Moscow. The author, Katherine Arden, admits that she took some liberties in regards to some historical – e.g. the appearance of certain kinds of clothing before the time they’ve been observed to have become prominent – and linguistic – inconsistent transliteration in favour of an aesthetic appeal, for example – matters, but I thought they were neither egregious nor unreasonable. That, however, is the opinion of someone who isn’t very well versed in the subject, so make of that what you will. All in all, I felt that her writing allowed for me to get thoroughly immersed into the 14th century Moscow and the wild lands north of it.

A lot of characters and names are introduced over the course of the first third of the book, some either gaining in prominence or disappearing almost completely soon after. Despite the initial info dump feeling a bit overwhelming with numerous names and their variations being introduced (a lot of Russian names have more endearing versions used in less formal occasions), I had already gotten used to it all by the halfway point. The cast of characters felt interesting and I personally was interested in what was happening with them all. Thus it is a shame that there is a only a few mentions of them after they’ve left the main cast. It would be, however, unreasonable to expect for too many more details on all characters of such a large cast in a single book.

The book, despite hopping between perspectives every now and then, is mainly from the perspective of Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, daughter to Pyotr Vladimirovich and Marina Ivanovna, who dies shortly after Vasya’s birth. The story starts proper when he goes to seek a new wife from Moscow. Circumstances lead to him bringing back an odd, god-fearing woman who fears that she’s surrounded by demons that no one else can see. She hates the lands she is brought back to and the odd, tomboyish youngest daughter of Pyotr’s. Vasilisa can also see such ‘demons’, but her approach to them is very different and she has to struggle with various dilemmas brought up by this gift of hers. These dilemmas are exasperated when a zealous Orthodox preacher is also sent into their rural community, also against his wishes.

The theme of tradition and sacrifice are very strongly present in this book, which is not very surprising considering the time period. While some traditions are clearly represented as dated and arbitrary, others are shown to have more value than the new ones that are brought to replace them. The emergence of Orthodox Christianity and the fading of Pagan tradition are prevalent elements in the narrative. Another notable element that I noticed with the book was the attention to detail when it came to horses. There was similar attention paid to them in The Witcher as well.

The reason I started reading this book, the use of Slavic folklore, was well represented. The various house and forest spirits are described and introduced appropriately for someone new to the mythology, so prior knowledge of it isn’t necessary but it adds to the experience if you have it.

I was very pleased with the book and how it interpreted and represented Slavic folklore and the culture of Russia in the middle ages. Vasilisa and Pyotr were very relateable, I feel, and Konstantin’s struggle was fascinating. The book gave me some of the same vibes that can be found in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Hellfire. What a delightful song. The characters in general held my interest and felt three dimensional, and the story, despite taking about until half-way point to properly start, kept me wanting to read more. While the story concludes in a way that it leaves room for a sequel, it felt like a complete story just by itself.

So what I want to say is that I would recommend this for anyone wanting to read a book set in a fairly grounded medieval Slavic setting with folkloric, magical elements. Oh, and if you like horses, you’ll probably enjoy it a fair bit more.

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