The Bear and the Nightingale

by Katherine Arden
First sentence: “It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of violence and some sexual content. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is hard to describe: it’s Russia on the cusp of when Christianity is becoming more accepted, but the Old Ways are still in play. There are demons keeping the Big Demon — known as The Bear — at bay, but due to priests, the people are beginning to neglect the Old Ways. Everyone, that is, except for Vasilisa. The youngest daughter of a northern lord, she sees and talks to the demons that keep the hearth fires burning, the stable animals quiet, and the lands safe. And when her father remarries a woman who is paranoid about the Old Ways, Vasilisa is the only one who keeps the village and the lands safe.

It’s a slow start, this one, but once it gets going — about halfway through — it really takes off. I mostly liked Vasilisa as a character; she is headstrong and not traditional and doesn’t keep anyone’s advice but her own. I really enjoyed the magic and the contrast between the Old Ways and religion, and how the priests believed that the two couldn’t co-exist. Arden is exploring interesting themes and I’m curious to see where the next one goes, since this one felt like a stand alone.

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