A few months ago, I read The Bear and the Nightingale, a story completely saturated in Russian myth, so much that it forms its own kind of myth. The details that the author put in as an expert–she has a degree in Russian studies–formed a nuanced picture of medieval Russia. However, I wasn’t that invested in the story or the perspective.
‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.
But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…
Atmospheric and enchanting, with an engrossing adventure at its core, The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman. blurb from goodreads
The pacing of the narrative is such that the action is focused really on the last third of the book, so the first two thirds merely detail the world in which Vasya, the heroine, grows up. Along the way, we’re treated to a close third for a variety of perspectives, which humanizes all secondary characters (other than Mozorko, perhaps) I love how the pieces of Vasya’s life added together to her narrative arc, but I struggled with her character. TBatN is a chosen one story: evil rising, magic birthed, trials, tribulations, friends, enemies, and obviously, a bittersweet sacrifice oriented ending. A good story; a formula which works for a reason. But Vasya is an uncompelling heroine—in fact, I found Konstantin, Anna, and Pyotr more interesting than her. Maybe I’m growing up, or maybe Vasya, a cardboard cutout, far-too-perfect Strong Female heroine is too bland. I completely failed to identify with her.
I’ve read several stories of Russia in the last few weeks, and it seems to me that Russia is the setting for more stories written by non-Russians than, say, Uganda, Malaysia, or Vanuatu. The Bear and the Nightingale exemplifies why (according to me), its such a popular setting. For one thing, Russia is an ‘East meets West’ place (and I know those dichotomies are Eurocentric). It’s not the US or Western Europe—it’s a little bit exotic, but similar enough to still be recognizable to the average media consumer, and it has myths that the West does not share, and medieval Russians wear dresses, but they’re called sarafans! How strange, but not weird, right? The endless, mostly empty plains, and the frosty forests add to the appeal too—the blank space is unexplored! (not really) but it practically begs for a story. Russian history is rich, too, and it has enough connections to the familiar Western European history that it turns up in lots of accessible Western TV shows and educational sources (including, say, degree programs at universities). TBatN, in rural medieval Russia, with a forest to explore and myths and details to pop out, along with mentions of Khans, totally shows my theory (which is right, obviously). And it’s not that I mind—Russia is fascinating—but food for thought.
TBatN is heavily critical of religion, particularly the abstract forced kind, which it implies much of Eastern Orthodox was at the time of the story (which to be fair, considering historical context and the devastation that Christianiy has wreaked on fold cultures worldwide is probably true). However, I hope religion and its role in daily life get a bit more nuance in the next bok. (which had an intriguing extract at the end of my copy).
tl;dr: The Bear and the Nightgale: Russia cold. Vasya boring. Story obvious (but still appealing.)
Have you read this? What’s a story you enjoyed that is set in Russia? tell me in the comments!