There are some books I wish I never finished so I could read them forever. This is one of those books. I loved loved loved it, even if I sometimes thought everything could be said in fewer words.
Being a Slav myself, I do love when I find the influence of Slavic folklore in books. In 9 out of 10 cases, it’s Russian folklore which is the most popular (but not the only one – writers take notes!). But when a writer makes a good story out of it, I can’t be happier.
Of course, this novel reminds me of Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente but only because there are some legends and creatures in both these books and both these writers know enough of Russian language and history to use it properly in their books. This is a much slower read, with many more characters and events.
This is the story of a family that’s close to the royal Russian family. They live in the forest, close to the magical creatures, with villagers who tell stories by the fire and believe in magical creatures, their lives are full of simple everyday magic. Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife have many children before they get a daughter that will change everything, little Vasya. Vasya’s life is marked by magical events. She is not an ordinary child and people believe she’s a witch, which was never a real problem until religion finds a way to disturb their everyday life. Then this becomes a story about the loss of the old world and the dying of folk tales.
This is a wonderful mix history and fiction that talks about a time in the history of Russia when not everything was easy for those who ruled the country. The poor people are poor and they will live even harder if the old gods don’t feel pity for them and help them. The women are married off to someone they’ve met only once, never to see their families again. The men have a choice – to raise a family and fight many enemies or to devote their lives to God and live their lives in poverty. In such a world domovoi guard the houses, rusalka appears and the Night King is seen. There’s an old story of a maiden being taken to be a greater creature’s wife, there’s a witch who saves her people and a worried father who falls under the spell of an evil stepmother. These are all elements of a fairy tale but the difference is that this time you are also given a realistic portrayal of Old Rus’.
The story of the Bear and the Nightingale is finally revealed in the second half of the book. Before that, you’ll probably start wondering why this title was chosen at all. But the second part is the actual story promised from the beginning when the main character was announced as the grandchild of an unusual woman. Famous fairy tales get an unusual twist and many famous characters appear (at least to those who know about Russian folk tales).
I expected something very different, much closer to fairy tales when I started reading. In the end, this is the story about an unusual family and the sacrifice one must make to keep that family alive.
*I received this book on NetGalley and gave it my honest review. Thanks for sharing!