25489134Magic in the cold of winter...

Set in the unforgiving Russian landscape during a time where a newly established Russian-Catholic Church clashes with the mystical beliefs of yore, a young woman comes into her own as an unlikely hero. 

4/5 Deeply creative, un-apologetically raw, and packed with unique cultural perspective, this pseudo fairy tale is sure to delight a wide range of readers.  

The story primarily focuses on Vasya, the young heroine of this tale, but the perspective will shift back and forth between other characters as well such as her father, stepmother, Dunya, her brother, Alyosha, and Father Konstantin who serves as one of the narrative's antagonists. Vasya is a bright and wild girl that has trouble fitting into a society where girls are expected to grow into polite, obedient, and loyal homemakers who bear lots of children for their husbands and keep their houses warm (something easier said than done in this landscape). None of that is for Vasya though, she was born different and she can see into a whole other world of demon-like creatures although she is blind to some of its inner workings. Her story is compelling at every turn and I also very much enjoyed the segments that explore the weight on her father's shoulders, Dunya's wisdom of the old ways, Alyosha's support of his sister, and the conflict that rages within her stepmother as well as Father Konstantin.

This world is not one for the weak. The very landscape is filled with peril, not least of which is the searing cold that threatens to claim any that stay out in it too long. This landscape is made all the more dangerous by the deep lore that surrounds it. There's an unseen ecosystem of demovi - various ancient creatures that either help or hunt mankind. The land stands on the precipice of a major conflict that no one even knows is brewing, all while political machinations and religious agendas disrupt the normal day-to-day of the hardworking townsfolk. 

Despite the light and airy fairy tale whimsy that the story boasts, there's also an unmistakable gravity in every line of text. The odds could not be more against Vasya and her family as they contend with both very tangible and very mystical adversarial forces. Fortunately, things never get too grim for the events to be enjoyable and the likable cast of characters is probably part of what makes things feel so tense. One thing that fell a little flat for me here is the concept of consequence. The sins of Father Konstantin are very nicely (and respectfully) represented as he obsesses over the painting of his "icons" (holy images of God and the saints) in the name of glorifying The Lord when really he's attempting to glorify himself - a malpractice that costs both him and the townspeople dearly. My issue is more in the fact that an equal weight is not given to Vasya's interactions with the demovi and Morozko, lord of winter. She dabbles in very dangerous forces, some of which that are beyond her ability to control, and while the climactic final battle is definitely intense, the perils of the mysticism she gets into are not really given as much attention as they deserve. Perhaps this is being saved for future entries in the trilogy, but for me this was one glaring omission.  

THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE plays to the strengths of what people love about fairy tales without leaning too heavily on commonly known tropes or narrative patterns. It illustrates a beautifully grim world in which old demonic powers hold sway over the fate of its people and does a nice job in clearly defining the societal parameters - many of which have some basis in Russian history. The author also does a lovely job of transliterating Russian words/names into English in a way that feels both faithful to the spirit of them while also pleasing to an American reader. While it does feel a little too anti-establishment at times, it's clear that a lot of love and care went into this story, the world it's told in, and the characters that readers meet. This one really is a must-have for anyone who might enjoy a sort of fairy tale that's a little more grown up and I'll certainly be continuing with the series. 


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