The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

the bear and the nightingale

The basics

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale

Author:

Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1

- The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)
- The Girl in the Tower (2018)

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Goodreads Summary:

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

This recap was written by Teresa Schultz

in short

Set in northern Russia a long time ago, the story focuses on Vasilisa, also called Vasya, who can see and speak to the many Russian spirits that live in the house and surrounding areas, some good and some not so good. Vasya’s family and nearby villagers all respect these spirits, leaving them offerings and tributes, until one day a Russian Orthodox priest arrives and decides the place is overrun by demons that need to be exorcised. He convinces everyone to fully give up their offerings to the spirits, leaving just Vasya to keep them going. As the spirits become weaker, the Russian god of fear, Medved, who has been bound up for centuries, uses their lack of protection to go after Vasya because he can use her power to escape his bonds and roam free to stir up war and other horrors. However, Medved’s brother, Morozko, who is Death, has also been searching for Vasya as well to help him fight his brother. He gives her, a talisman necklace that helps her fight the god of fear and all the spirits that have aligned with him. However, it’s her father, who comes to the battle just in the nick of time, who sacrifices his own life to save Vasya and her brother Alyosha. Because he made this sacrifice without fear,Medved is bound up once again. With her father dead and most of the villagers convinced she’s a witch who caused most of their problems, Vasya decides she would rather wander the world on her magical stallion that Morozko gave her.

what went down

  • The story starts on a cold winter night in the home of Marina and Pyotr Vladimirovich, a rich land owner in northern Rus’ (so Russia a long time ago when it was ruled by the Khan empire). The family’s nurse, Dunya, is telling the children a tale about a girl sent to marry the frost-demon (aka winter-king, aka Karachun, aka Morozko). The girl was brave when the frost-demon came to her and for this, he sends her back to her family with a large dowry.
  • At the same time, we discover Marina is frail and pregnant once again. She insists on having the child, however, because she knows this new daughter will be special just like her mother, a suspected witch who appeared out of nowhere to marry the Crown Prince of Rus’. Marina ends up dying in childbirth.
  • Sure enough, the daughter, Vasya, is special and can see and talk to a number of spirits who live in her house and the forest. These spirits are sometimes helpful, sometimes mischeiavious and sometimes dangerous (one water nymph likes to lure men to their death so she can feast on their desire).
  • Vasya is also rather wild and likes to run away from chores. One night when she’s about 6 years old she gets lost in the forest and stumbles upon a sleeping man. She wakes him up for help and sees he only has one eye. He starts to coax her to him and she gets scared. Another man then appears on a white horse and saves her.
  • Scared and convinced he needs someone to get Vasya in line, Pyotr decides to head to Moscow to find another bride, as well as a husband for his older daughter, Olga. He heads off with his two older sons, Sasha and Kolya.
  • Once in Moscow, political intrigue comes up. The current Crown Prince wants to make sure his son, who is still a child, will be safe to rule when he dies and that no one will try to usurp him. He decides to marry off one such potential usurper to Olga, who is not of royal blood and thus won’t provide further argument for why this guy should be prince. The prince also decides to solve the problem of his mad daughter Anna, who can also see the Russian spirits but is convinced they are demons, by marrying her to Pyotr so she’s hidden away.
  • Also while in Moscow, Sasha, a devout Christian, decides he wants to join a monastery. Pyotr does not like it but says he can after a year.
  • Pyotr marries Anna and prepares to return home with his sons. However, Kolya starts an argument with a strange rich man, who now has the right to kill him because Kolya insulted him. Pyotr begs for his life. The man says he will spare Kolya but only if Pyotr gives Vasya a jeweled necklace and ensure she has it on her always. The man tells Pyotr he cannot tell anyone of this encounter and wipes the memories of everyone else who was there.
  • Once Pyotr and the others return home, Anna is worse because there are even more spirits and she cries most of the time. Olga is married off and goes to live in Moscow, telling Vasya she can join her when she’s grown. The Crown Prince dies, giving Sasha another reason to leave to join the monastery so he can help protect the new, young Crown Prince. Pyotr gives the necklace to Dunya, the nurse, to give to Vasya. She recognizes it as a talisman, though, and is afraid, so she keeps it. The strange man, who we learn is Frost or the frost-demon, comes to her in her dream, upset. She bargains with him to wait to give the necklace to Vasya once she is a woman.
  • Life goes on until Vasya is 16. She continues to talk to spirits, who teach her things like how to talk to and ride horses.
  • Back in Moscow, people in charge of protecting the Crown Prince’s interest discover an upstart, charismatic priest who they are afraid could turn people against the prince. They decide to send him to Pyotr’s family, who’s old priest has died.
  • The priest, Konstantin, is at first upset as he sees this as burying him in the middle of nowhere (which is true). But once there, he meets Anna, who tells him about seeing demons. He decides he’s being called to save everyone from their wicked, pagan ways and preys on their fears to convince them to repent and give up their tributes to spirits.
  • Because people no longer leave offerings for the spirits, they start to weaken and call on Vasya to help feed them. Other problems start to happen as well – the village is hit with a colder than normal winter, and their logs are burning faster than normal, meaning they have little heat. Beasts start to stalk the village, people die in mysterious ways, etc.
  • The spirits warn Vasya about vague evils that are coming because people have stopped leaving tributes, telling her fires and the dead walking are signs that it’s worsening.
  • The strange rich man (who by this point we realize is Morozko) visits Dunya again, wanting her to give Vasya the talisman. Dunya bargains for one more year, saying Vasya isn’t ready yet.
  • Anna decides all the new problems are because of Vasya, who still talks to the spirits and won’t give up the old ways, so Anna tells Pyotr they need to marry her off. Pyotr and Dunya are still worried about the necklace and what it could mean. They figure the tales of the frost-demon are always about maidens, so if Vasya is married, he will lose interest.
  • Pyotr decides to wed Vasya to a friend’s son who has inherited a good estate, and a long bout of celebrations start in preparation for the wedding. Vasya doesn’t trust her fiancee, though, because she can tell his horse is scared of him.
  • Just before the wedding, Vasya’s nephew tries to ride her pony, who gets spooked when she sees a demon shadow and takes off running. Vasya jumps on the nearest horse – her fiancee’s – and goes after them, just managing to save the nephew. Her fiance is embarrassed by her showing him up, however, and calls off the wedding.
  • Pyotr now decides to send Vasya to a convent, the only other option for women during this time, to save her from the frost-demon. He is first called away, however, to help a local village that burned to the ground (evil spirits have continued to attack people).
  • Around this time, a priest from Moscow visits the family with a message from Sasha, who has left the monastery and is gaining his own fame. He wants to break away from the Khan empire and asks his father for support, although his father thinks it is too dangerous. Nothing else happens with this plot, and it seems it’s a story thread that will be picked up in the next book.
  • Dunya is visited by another dream, this time of Pyotr’s dead children because she did not give Vasya the talisman. Her hand freezes when she wakes up and grabs the necklace and she begins to die. She is able to give the talisman to Vasya just before she passes.
  • During all this, the priest Konstantin has become obsessed with Vasya, basically convinced she’s a temptress meant to seduce him from the holy path. He’s attacked several times by the spirits and undead being roused by Medved and Vasya saves him, but he’s half convinced it was all Vasya’s doing.
  • Konstantin then starts hearing what he thinks is the voice of God, urging him to continue driving the villagers to fear and eventually to drive Vasya away.
  • Konstantin therefore convinces Anna to send Vasya to a convent now, even while Pyotr is away. Anna goes to Vasya and tells her she’s leaving the next morning, even if they have to tie her up to do so.
  • Vasya takes off running, escaping Konstantin and some villagers, and ends up lost again in the woods, freezing and exhausted. She stumbles yet again upon the one-eyed man from her childhood (Medved) and is almost attacked by Dunya, who Medved has basically turned into a vampire now attacking people. Morozko shows up just in time to save her. He then takes her to his magical home.
  • Vasya begins to recover and Morozko tells her his brother is trying to find her because he needs her in order to escape the bounds Morozko put on him. Once free, he’ll stir up war and other trouble so he can feed on people’s fear. Morozko gives Vasya her own magical horse, Solovey, who now follows her around. Vasya and Morozko start to like each other, some sparks fly, but then Morozko tells her she’ll be safe, he’ll give her a rich dowry and makes sure she marries some guy. Vasya rejects the dowry.
  • Vasya decides she wants to return home, even after what they did to her, so she can continue to protect her family. Morozko tries to talk her out of it, although he eventually decides it might be safer for her then falling into the hands of his brother. Morozko says he will fight his brother once it’s midwinter, when he is strongest.
  • Konstantin finds out the voice talking to him isn’t God but Medved (of course), and the voice tells him he can make all this go away if Konstantin just brings him anyone who can hear the spirits. Konstantin realizes this applies to Anna as well and tricks her into coming to the god in a forest glade.

how did it end?

Vasya returns just in time to discover Anna missing and takes her brother Alyosha with her to rescue her, knowing that Medved can use Anna to free himself. She gets to the glade just as Dunya the zombie is attacking Anna, who dies, and a fight breaks out between all the spirits, who take sides between Morozko and his brother, who has now turned into a bear.

Vasya is able to speak to the actual Dunya and get her to remember her past life and asks Morozko to take her to truly die, which means he has to leave the battle. He does, and Vasya and Alyosha take up fighting Medved in bear form. Just as things look bad, Pyotr shows up. Medved says if Pyotr lets him have Vasya, he’ll leave everyone else alone, but Pyotr says he can’t do that. He then attacks Medved, who kills him. Because Pyotr sacrificed his life without fear, though, Medved becomes bound once again, losing his powers and transforming back into the sleeping one-eyed man.

With Pyotr and and Anna now dead, Vasya realizes she can’t stay because the villagers are still convinced she’s a witch and don’t trust her, even though the general feel of evil has left. She tells Alyosha and her younger sister Irina she’s leaving to travel the world. First, though, she and Morozko visit Konstantin, warning him that if he doesn’t leave, he will die. Vasya flies away on her new horse with plans to see the world but first goes to Morozko’s house, where he welcomes her in from the cold.

anything else

This book makes wide use of Russian terms. Some of the important ones:
Batyushka – a term for priests
Rus’ – a term for an area of land that includes Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe and that predates the name Russia.
Solovey – Nightingale
Upyr – Vampire
Vedma – Witch

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