Fantasy books, when derived or inspired from folklore or myths, always capture attention. It’s just something about them which makes the stories all the more magical than 100% made up stories. It makes you feel like this could actually be true.
The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden is inspired from Russian folklores and it’s REALLY INTERESTING. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in this trilogy and I was completely absorbed throughout the book. I got caught up in the story and the characters, in this beautiful world which looks normal in the beginning. But as the book progresses, Arden introduces more and more magical or “not normal” elements until the world is completely different from what you pictured in the beginning.
The Bear and the Nightingale follows Vasilisa “Vasya” Patrovna beginning from the circumstances leading to her birth, which took her mother’s life. The book takes us through the YEARS of her life. We watch as Vasya grows, listening to tales and folklore in the middle of winter, huddled near the fire along with her siblings. Her village believes that the blue-eyed frost demon is bad and they honor house spirits, leaving out food and mead for them, for protection from evil.
Everything changes and comes crashing down when Vasya’s father brings home a new wife. Anna Inavovna sees “demons”, as she calls them, and decries the faith held by the village. But the very “demons” that she sees are the spirits of house and stable which keep them protected and well, whom Vasya can see as well.
With the help of a new priest hailing from Moscow, Anna Inanovna succeeds in turning the village against the spirits they revered, which makes the spirits weak. Vasya is the only one who can directly connect the damage from the turn of faith. Crops become hard to grow, but wither and die easily. Fires burn wood faster than they ever had before, and winter grows colder. Without the spirits strong enough to tend to the wellbeing of the village, the village suffers.
Vasya has to use her powers in full force and fight the new faith of her village to keep her home and village safe.
“There was a time, not long ago
When flowers grew all year
When days were long
And nights star-strewn
And men lived free from fear”
I absolutely loved The Bear and the Nightingale and the biggest reason is the writing. Katherine Arden has written the book vividly, with enough descriptions to make you feel like you’re there and in a way such that you don’t get bored reading. As I read the book, I saw myself next to Vasya when she got lost in the jungle, said goodbye to her older siblings as they left home, and as she learnt to talk to horses. I was there with her through it all.
This is one of the books that truly made me feel as if I was on an adventure with the characters.
But what is writing without the plot and characters, right? Well, Arden managed to also wow me with a fantastical world with strong and diverse characters.
Vasilisa Petrovna is wildfire. She is bold, curious and skilled. When girls of the village usually stay home and sew, Vasya goes exploring in the forest and learns to ride. She talks to spirits and creatures not seen by others, and bonds with them. Her sewing may not be the best but she knows where to find any kind of plant or flower in the forest.
Vasya is also headstrong. She chooses what she wants to do unapologetically, and argues without hesitation. She is seen as a girl who has to be tamed, who is unlike how a girl must be. She may not be considered pretty but she holds the attention of the room with her actions and expressions.
“I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”
I was caught up in Vasya the same way the people surrounding her in the book were. I could not stop reading, wanting to know what she would do next. She is not the perfect character, she has many flaws, but she is enchanting and charming in her own way.
“If this is the last decision I can ever make, at least it is my decision. Let me go, Alyosha. I am not afraid.”
The story itself, which is told in the point of view of Vasya, was brilliant. The book started with a low-key prophecy about Vasya before her birth, setting the scene of the village, and went on an adventure until she was in her teens. The plot was intricate and magical. It involved myths, dreams, a one-eyed man, strange spirits and the immortal of death amongst other things. I truly felt like I was in a completely different world.
While the story was great on its own, the added Russian elements enhanced the experience of the story. They are especially prominent in the names and nicknames of the characters. It is not explained explicitly, but left to the reader to realize as the story goes on, making the reader become intuitive with the Russian way.
For example, children take on the father’s name as their last name. For girls, the name is extended with -vna while for boys it is -vich. Vasilisa is called Vasilisa Petrovna while her brother is called Aleksandr Petrovich. Small things like this are imbued with the culture.
Some readers may find the lack of explanation confusing or a flaw in the writing, but I found it interesting. I figured out the patterns and it made me fall into the book even more. I was intrigued about what other patterns exist and wanted to learn.
Hence, the writing, the story, the characters, and the random Russian bits all together made me love the book and enjoy it. When I finished the book, I was disoriented because I found myself back in the real world. I promptly started the second book of the trilogy because I wanted to get lost in the story and its world again.
Read this book if you are into fantasy books. And especially read this book if you’re looking to get into the fantasy genre, because it’s one of the best.
Until next Time,
Happy Reading !