The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden, is a historical fantasy novel inspired by Russian folklore. I did a little bit of internet digging (not much, admittedly), and can’t find any particular story cited, so I am guessing this is more “elements of” rather than “adapted from”. It is set in Russia, some time (150 years?) after Constantine converted to Christianity and adopted it as the official religion of the Roman Empire. As the novel opens, an elderly servant is telling a peasant about a girl who married a frost demon, and it becomes apparent fairly quickly that religious conflict is going to form the substance of the novel. Those living in the countryside continue to pay tribute to their old house spirits while attending the Orthodox chapel on Sundays. The Bear and the Nightingale deals with tension between these beliefs.
Vasya, the main character, is the daughter of a woman whose mother was rumoured to be a witch; as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that she shares her grandmother’s second sight. She alone can see and communicate with the hearth gods, a gift that turns out to be something of a poisoned chalice. When a zealous young priest, Konstantin, is sent to the family from Moscow, he determines to exorcise the old beliefs from the family — along with anyone who clings to them.
I read The Bear and the Nightingale in a small tent, mostly using torchlight, snug in a sleeping bag while the wind howled and the rain poured. It was quite the atmospheric way to experience it. It’s also a testament to how engrossing the book was – I was never distracted by my reading environment. It was extremely gripping. The theme of obsession runs through the book – in particular, Konstantin’s obsession with Vasya, and with driving out the old beliefs, irrespective of the cost to the villagers. It is clear that he is both deeply attracted to and deeply disturbed by Vasya, who is treated by the other characters in the book as half-feral. His treatment of her consistently unnerved me, and I was never entirely sure what he was going to do next.
Vasya and the other human characters, especially Dunya (the aforementioned elderly servant) and Konstantin, are vividly drawn and interesting. I did not find the depictions of the house gods as compelling. I only finished it a few days ago, and they have already mostly faded from memory. However, the frost demon, Morozko, broods over the book from the very first chapter. Throughout the novel, the characters endure a number of unusually harsh winters, attributed to his wrath at the way the characters have abandoned the old ways in favour of Christianity. As a personification of winter, he could hardly have been better. Something that struck me as I was reading was the way that Vasya’s wealth – her father is a powerful country lord, and her mother was the sister of a prince – cannot protect her against the winter. The way in which even the most comfortably-off people are subject to the elements, becoming dangerously thin before the spring comes, was portrayed very well.
Although I think the book was masterfully written, it was not to my personal taste, and I think I will probably skip the rest of the series. The foreboding atmosphere of the book made me anxious – I was constantly worried that something extremely dark was about to happen. (One of my friends, on hearing that I was reading a book set in medieval Russia in which the hearth gods were main characters and bad things kept happening to teenage girls, asked “Are you sure you’re not reading Game of Thrones by accident?”). I can read thrillers with no problem, but the suspense in this book was used differently and it wasn’t for me. If you are better with that kind of thing, you might well love it – it’s definitely a very good book.