To say that 2017 was a rough year for me is an understatement. I was going into my final year of graduate school, I lived in a crummy apartment, the state of the world brought on record levels of anxiety, and the weight of the post-school world was closing in more than I could handle. I coped by locking myself in my room with a good book after a long day burying myself in thesis work. Several books helped me escape my worries, but The Bear and the Nightingale was one of the more magical books in my arsenal. That book cast a spell powerful enough that I would read hours past my bedtime just to stay inside the story. Since life seems fit to drop me into depressive episodes now and again, I thought I would relive that magic another time.
Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna lives with her family in a medieval Russian village, where her father, Pyotr, is the lord. From a young age, Vasya has shown a particular interest in her nurse’s stories and has always seen the magical creatures that live in and around the village. But when Konstantin, a priest from Moscow, and Pyotr’s new wife Anna, insist that the village give up their superstitions for a life serving God, dark events begin to plague the townspeople. Naturally, the blame falls on Vasya, but the creatures only she can see are begging her to save them…
The dichotomy between religion and superstition makes this book so enthralling. Vasya’s interactions with the magical creatures are so interesting that you feel truly afraid when Konstantin and Anna blame Vasya for their actions. I’ve always found people with near-fanatic religious beliefs so interesting, especially when they are so self-righteous that they think their despicable deeds are actually good.
Anna shrieks and madly laughs her way through the story, so deathly afraid of demons and evil that she treats Vasya more like an animal than a stepdaughter. But Konstantin is a little more subtle, manipulating the village into believing that damnation awaits them if they do not turn from superstition. He also holds a secret perverted desire for Vasya, drawn to her non-conformist and ethereal personality despite her being a “witch.” Basically, picture Judge Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, minus the homicidal tendencies, and you have Konstantin: a man of God who tries to staunch his strange desire for a “witch” by turning deeper to God, only to be undone in the end by his own hubris. All the characters in this book are memorable, but Konstantin’s inner torments are both disgusting and intriguing.
I also really like Vasya. She is not an extraordinary beauty nor a sought-after figure in the village like a fairy tale heroine would normally be. In fact, Pyotr, her father, calls her a “little frog,” and Anna calls her ugly right to her face. And yet, there is something ethereal about her that, for a moment, makes Konstantin believe she is a witch. Of course, that could be because this is medieval Russia and anyone who does not conform in any way could be labeled a witch.
There is a scene where Vasya’s nephew nearly gets into an accident, and Vasya saves him by pulling some extraordinary moves on horseback. Her family is actually more angry that Vasya embarrassed herself in front of potential suitors than they are glad for the nephew’s safety. That’s how much these people want Vasya to conform, no matter if her seemingly-magical skills saved someone’s life.
It’s plain to see that Vasya does have magical gifts. She can see the strange creatures that live in the oven, the river, and the forest, where no one else can. And she can hear the horses speak to her, with an uncanny ability to ride them without bridle or saddle. It gives a glance into a world that is more welcoming and exciting than Vasya’s medieval world, and when anyone denies it, it drives us ever closer to Vasya’s side.
Plus, she has a connection with a powerful frost demon named Morozko, whose wicked brother, known as the Bear, torments the village. There is undeniable chemistry between the two, even if nothing outright romantic happens between them. It’s a strange but beautiful relationship since Morozko is also Death, and a village girl forming a bond with Death is as dark fairy tale as you can get. There’s something so intriguing and lovely about Death itself bending the rules to save you, all because you had the courage to stand against it.
Like Wildwood Dancing and Beauty, this book is so lyrical that I almost always have to read it out loud, which is part of its magic. When it’s spun out loud with your own voice, for a few minutes, you transcend into another plane of imagination. And that, my friends, is why books are such a wonderful gift.