The Bear and the Nightingale

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Escapism is the name of the game for me recently. So, more fantasy! At least it is historical fantasy this time?

Vasilisa’s mother died bringing her into the world and her last words said that Vasilisa was special. Vasilisa comes from a family of women with mysterious powers and connections to the natural world. As Vasilisa grows into a wild and fearless child, her father decides to remarry, bringing home a devout young wife to tame his wild daughter. Vasilisa bucks her step-mother’s rule until a new priest comes to the town with the sole purpose to convert Vasilisa’s people to the city’s religion. A battle between the old world beliefs and the new, evil and goodness, and a lot of mythology fills the pages of this slow paced, cozy novel.

I started reading this on a quiet, snowy day, and I would say that it was the best atmosphere for reading this novel. It takes place in a village in northern Russia with a lot of focus on Russian myths. The plot is very, very slow. We are introduced to Vasilisa’s family and their town before she is even born. Then, the book follows her childhood and budding adulthood as the village also changes over time. There is a lot of buildup and focus on the characters and their world over action or furthering the plot. The only pace picks up over halfway through when Vasilisa is nearing adulthood and confronting the evil presence taking over her village. Honestly, I think I enjoyed the quieter, day-to-day sections of the novel than the way the story tied itself up at the end with action. Still, the conclusion is rather satisfying. Or at least everything gets tied up nicely.

The novel is in third person omniscient perspective and has a distant, fairy tale quality to the writing. Despite that, we do get to see into many character’s mind’s and pasts. Vasilisa, her father, her youngest brother, step-mother, and the priest are some of the most prominent characters. There is a good amount of realistic complexity to most of them. Vasilisa is a great character. She is headstrong and rebels against rules she deems unfair. She is kind to her family as well as the mythological creatures she encounters. I loved her bravery and admired her tenacity. Her opposite, the priest, is also well developed. Though the reader may not be on his side, what motivates his actions makes sense. Vasilisa’s father and siblings were not all as developed, but I came to love the ones that the book spent time on.

This isn’t a book for every fantasy lover, but those who are looking for something quiet to escape into will find a lot to love here. The magic is based in myth and not explained in depth, the plot is slow and focused more on character progression, and the writing is quite descriptive. I gave The Bear and the Nightingale four out of five stars.

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