Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale


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.

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The Bear and the Nightingale will be released 12th January 2017.

The night drew on , and Vasya shivered as she walked. Her teeth clacked together. Her toes grew numb despite her heavy boots. A small part of her had thought – hoped – that there would be some help in the woods. Some destiny – some magic. She had hoped the firebird would come, or the Horse with the Golden Mane, or the raven who was really a prince…foolish girl to believe in fairy tales. The winter wood was indifferent to men and women; the chyerty slept in winter, and there was no such thing as a raven prince.

As a child Vasilisa enjoys listening to fairy tales by the fire, especially those of the winter king Morozko, and is taught to leave offerings for the household spirits. As she grows older she is expected to forget these fairy stories however Vasya is different she can see the spirits. When her stepmother sends word to Moscow that the village needs a new priest, Father Konstantin is sent and with his arrival the villagers end up neglecting the spirits. Crops start to fail, the winters grow harsher and suddenly there is an evil force that wasn’t there before. Going against almost everyone in the village Vasya is determined to keep the evil at bay, but even with her extraordinary gifts can she manage it?

I have loved fairytales since I was a child, so I was really excited to read The Bear and the Nightingale when I heard about it, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. What really makes it stand out is that unlike a lot of the retellings it isn’t stories that are universally known, which makes it quite unique. Since the story is based on Russian fairytales that I am unfamiliar with, it meant that it was all completely new to me and I loved finding out about the chyerty and Morozko.

The writing is extremely expressive and manages to craft this amazing setting so keenly that I had no trouble picturing it. Its atmospheric and magical quality really helps to keep you engrossed in the story. It is quite a slow read but not in the sense that you have to drag your way through it, rather that the world we are transported to is rich in description, and that time has been taken so that it feels utterly authentic. As it is a time period and a culture that I am not familiar with I welcomed these depictions, but can see that perhaps for others it could seem too much.

The author has created some remarkable characters in this novel. I adored Vasya how she is strong and spirited, even though through the characterization of the other women you know it is not acceptable for her to be so. Despite the trials that she must endure she always remains loyal to her family and her village, even when they do not act the same way toward her.

Vasya ran into the woods, bruised and panting. Her loosened cloak flapping about her. She heard shouting from the village. Her tracks showed clear in the virgin snow, so that her only hope was speed. She darted headlong from shadow to shadow, until the shouting grew fainter and at last died away. They dare not follow, thought Vasya. They fear the forest after dark. And then, darkly: They are wise.

I felt really connected to her family and their struggles and loved the relationships between Vasya, her siblings and Dunya, their nurse. The spirits and the winter king also had interesting personas, I liked that even though Vasya could only see the spirits, they were written as if they were also part of the family. I enjoyed the duality of hearing the stories by the characters of the winter king and then how he is portrayed as a character himself.

The one thing I did have difficultly with was a lot of the Russian terms, and the names. Each of the characters has their name and then the name that they are affectionately called by their family, it did get a little confusing at first but eventually I managed. There is a glossary at the back of the book but I felt that maybe this could have been included before the story starts, to make it easier to pick up the meanings of words.

I also felt that it ended a little abruptly, that there was more to explore, maybe it was just because I didn’t want it to end. Since finishing it though I have discovered that it is the first in a series, which I am thrilled to hear.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a spectacular and wondrous read, full of incredible characters and superb writing. If you enjoy fairytales then this is one you definitely don’t want to miss.


Thank you to Del Rey, Random House and Netgalley for the review copy of this book.

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