Patrick Briotte- Staff Writer
‘“All my life,” she said, “I have been told to ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die.”
At the very edge of the deep Russian wilderness, a border exists between the realms of wild magic and fiercely held religion, where intrigue and adventure lay within the reach of the readers’ fingertips. Caught between these worlds is Vasilisa Petrovna, ready to embark on a journey fit to enrapture anyone with an interest in slipping away into a world of fantasy. Katherine Arden’s first steps into the world of fantasy has us seeing a family at war with itself. Themes of conflicting ideology and conformity against freedom are heavy in this tale from the frozen forests of the distant past.
Taking place in the midst of the 1400’s, Russia is set in the status of being a Christian nation. Beliefs of faith are constantly going against the legends and stories passed down in the form of folk tales describing ancient and wondrous magics the world has nearly forgotten about. The protagonist, Vasilisa, is the daughter of a powerful lord and a princess wielding mysterious power, the latter of which passes away in sacrifice for her daughter.
Her entire life is one of structure and rules, with people around her outlining what her expectations in life should be. This leaves Vasilisa yearning for a life where she can feel more directly in charge and able to embrace herself for who she is.
Possessing a second sight, Vasilisa is immediately at odds with her religious step-mother, Anna. Both Vasilisa and her step-mother are gifted with the ability to see the spirits of the land, but Anna is the one who believes they are simple demons who wish to tempt her into sin, while Vasilisa is punished by both her and a local priest for seeing the creatures in a positive light. In a genre filled with stories that can be categorized as dark fantasy, military fantasy, epic tales of incredible proportions, “The Bear and The Nightingale” wears its status as a classic fairy tale on its sleeve.
Readers are filled with a sense of wonder at the raw mysticism taking place in the world presented to them. Vasilisa herself is a strong-willed young woman who proves her worth through action.
Outsmarting humans and demons alike, her capability makes her a very likable protagonist for the reader to invest their interest in without fear of her character becoming too stale or predictable in the narrative.
Arden herself shows a command over wordplay that makes passages feel enchanting with very distinct passages containing poetic influences. “The years slipped by like leaves” being one of the best examples of this technique.
For her first entry into the realm of fantasy, Arden has made a strong start to a cohesive world. There is enough mystery and subtle narrative work to keep readers engaged and curious as to what will happen next as well, as being open enough to welcome readers who may be new to the fantasy genre as a whole.
The Bear and The Nightingale is a refreshing return to basics for any fantasy lover to invest themselves in, and one that touches all the important elements for what makes a story satisfying from start to finish.