Whilst my wistful wishing for a white Christmas went unfulfilled, I attempted to satisfy my winter wantings with a book set in Russia—a country rather infamous for its harsh and unforgiving winters. The book of my choosing, “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden—voted one of the best Science Fiction and Fantasy books for 2017 by Goodreads—did not disappoint.
Set in earlier times, this mix between fairy tale, historical fantasy, and a coming-of-age story follows the life of Vasilisa (aka Vaysa) Petrovna and her family, who live in a forest in northern Russia. Her father, a wealthy boyar (similar to a duke), rules over the settlement that houses his family—three sons and two daughters—and many villagers. His wife died while giving birth to Vasilisa (the youngest), a sacrifice she made in order to pass down the magic that was bestowed upon her at birth by her mother—a magic woman who married into royalty. Her father often avoids Vaysa because she reminds him of the loss of his wife, however Vasya doesn’t mind the solitude—she has others to spend her time with.
Magical beings and spirits live in her family’s village and the surrounding forest and Vaysa occupies her time offering them food and socializing with them. She keeps her abilities a secret in fear of ostracization from her people, until her new stepmother arrives and Vaysa realizes that she can see the magical beings too. Quite the opposite of Vaysa, her stepmother denounces the beings as demons and sends the previously peaceful village into fearful turmoil. Yet losing her magical companions isn’t the only thing Vaysa has to fear—for something is awakening in the woods, something she has only heard of in her nursemaid’s stories, and it is hungry for magic and those who possess it.
With astounding lyrical weaving, Arden transports readers into a world unknown where magic and fairy tales come alive while still incorporating the very real themes of family, relationships, teenage angst, isolation, and hope, which will entrance young adults and adults alike. If nothing else, the detailed and realistic description of the frigid Russian winters will have you wrapped in a blanket with a warm drink in front of the fire, even with the lackluster winter we have had this year.