I received The Bear And The Nightingale in exchange for an honest review.
This book took me a little out of my comfort zone; set in another time and place, with a strong undercurrent of fantasy. It left me in a strange situation, where I didn’t really get along with the story – but I can’t quite put my finger on why. The writing was beautiful, the author weaves elements of religion, mythology and fantasy amongst a story of a very likeable young girl. And yet it wasn’t quite for me.
Set in the historic wilderness of Russia where winter stretches most of the year and the country is ruled by Grand Princes, this story follows a family in a small village as they forage for food and share fairytales together around the fire to keep warm at night. The protagonist is Vasya, a headstrong young girl who has a touch of magic in her genes. Vasya is almost at one with the Russian wilderness; she understands every nook and cranny of the forest from a young age, and she can see things which others can’t.
This story starts off strong; Vasya is instantly charming and likeable. She’s feisty and rebellious, and it’s instantly obvious that she’s different from the rest of her family; she’s able to see and speak to the spirits of the forest and her home. For a while, her wild nature is accepted amongst her family but when she comes of age and her a father brings home a new stepmother, suddenly things have to change.
It’s at this point – the middle part of the novel – that it started to drag for me. The story moves quite slowly, and some cruel, unpleasant characters are introduced. There’s Anna, Vasya’s stepmother, who refuses to recognise the creatures of the forest and insists that Vasya’s father arranges a marriage for her quickly. Worse, Konstantin, a priest who arrives at the village aiming to enlighten the residents. He is a truly dislikable character whose motivations I couldn’t understand one iota – one who uses his strong religious beliefs to run a witch hunt of sorts, disrupting the equilibrium of the entire village and turning the residents against each other.
The final part of the book does pick up again; characters such as Konstantin and Anna are pushed to the background, Vasya comes to the forefront, there’s an action-packed battle and the fantasy element really is unleashed. There’s no doubt this story is intriguing and beautifully written in this final section.
I really struggled with the dark religious connotations in this book, the slow middle and the unanswered questions I was left with around Vasya. But, I have heard that this is the beginning of a trilogy, so perhaps those questions will be answered. I also can’t deny that this book is beautifully written, incredibly atmospheric and a wonderful book to read during winter time. It didn’t completely work for me, but I’m sure plenty of people will love it.