The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I enjoyed this book quite a bit for the fantasy elements, but especially for the vivid portrait of life in rural Russia back in the days when boyars still gave tribute to the khans to keep the horde at bay. Even Vasilisa, the daughter of a feudal lord, worried about hunger and cold when the winter stretched too long. The descriptions of the landscape and the changing of the seasons were the strongest and most compelling part of the book.
The characters were slightly less compelling. Vasilisa is the strong, brave heroine. Anna is the shrinking and deceitful stepmother. Constantine is the flawed and sinning priest. Vasilisa’s father and brothers and sisters are alternately for or against Vasilisa, like battles she can either win or lose. We’re never meant to (and I didn’t) develop any sympathy for Anna or Constantine, never give much thought to how Olga or Irina view situations, and the brothers are pretty much pawns, excepting Alexander who becomes a monk.
The plot kind of creeps along for the first 60% of the book, with nothing but the rich description to carry the reader along. Vasilisa is born, she grows up. It’s like the “farm boy learning he’s the subject of the great prophecy” story, but with a boyar’s daughter. Vasilisa understands how the world works and she’s the only one who knows that without the house spirits, they’ll be undefended when the dark god comes.
She’s not a real girl like you could imagine meeting, she’s just a heroine. I think that the characters could have been fleshed out a lot more. Anna could have been fascinating and sympathetic. After all, she’s got the sight, just like Vasilisa, and she’s the daughter of a prince, married off against her will. There could have been alliances between her and the other women in the house. Vasilisa could have wavered in her sympathy towards Anna and vice versa. Surely in a land where people are locked inside for months at a time lest they freeze to death, there would be drama and political factions. But no, this is a simple fantasy story with a familiar plot?
I got this book from Audible. The narrator starts doing a normal voice for the description and a Russian accented English to narrate the speech. It didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. In fact, I quite enjoyed it after a while, though there were times in which the Russian accent bled over into everything.
When I had an hour left of the book and there hadn’t been what I considered a solid resolution, I started to despair that it was the first of a trilogy and that there would be some horrid cliffhanger. Fortunately, the book ends well enough that I felt content to leave it at that. It was not advertised on Audible as the first of a series, and I wouldn’t have bought it if I had known it was the first of a series. But, I’m glad I listened to it. I did enjoy it, just not enough to make a three-book commitment.