The best book I read this month was a fantastic read that swept me away. Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is lush, lyrical, and Romantic. Not hearts-and-flowers romantic, but Beethoven Romantic. Lord Byron Romantic. Mary Shelley Romantic. Full of emotion and passion and nature and imagination.
Set in the early years of Tsarist Russia (roughly the 1300s), The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, the daughter of a Russian nobleman, in a village on the edge of the wilderness. Vasya is a wild child, headstrong and independent, but devoted to her family and her village. She inherits her mother’s gift—a connection to the spirits that inhabit the land and the home. (Russian folklore says that every house is protected by a hearth spirit called a domovoi.)
Vasya’s personality and gift bring her into conflict with her stepmother, the village priest, and eventually the whole village. She becomes caught up in a struggle between supernatural forces, and it is in this struggle that she encounters the bear and the nightingale.
Arden’s narrative reads very much like a fairy tale, which is fitting because the story she tells is very much of that genre, but it’s not the simplistic fairy tales spun by Disney and company. This tale harkens back to the original Grimm’s tales—dark and earthy and violent.
Vasya’s story continues over two more books, but I don’t know if I’m going to read them. This story felt very full and complete and satisfying, just as it is. The idea of reading more feels like ordering a second dinner while being completely stuffed from the first one.