All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me. Please. Please let me help you.
So what’s the book about?
When Vasilisa Vladimirovich is born, in a village on the edge of the wilderness, far in the north of Russia, her mother dies. She tells her husband to look after Vasilisa. She grows up with her brothers, sister and father in a village on the edge of the wilderness. Life in the cold and in the remoteness is mostly not so easy for the family and only the evenings filled with forbidden stories about old magic can provide warmth in front of the stove. However, for the young, wild Vasilisa, these are far more than fairy tales. She alone can see the spirits that protect her home. When something dark spreads through the woods, only she seems able to drive it away.
Why I wanted to read this series?
I have read many stories about western European cultures, as well as cultures from the Asian continents, but I have never dealt with Russian myths and was even more pleased to read a Russian-influenced story here. When I was a child, I loved the films about Jack Frost and the Witch Baba-Yaga and couldn’t get enough of them. I can especially recommend the old Soviet films, they enchanted me so much. In general, I can say that the Russian myths are enchanting and simply offer the most beautiful fairytales for me. That is why I was all the more curious to see if I could be enchanted here too.
These aspects attracted me the most while reading.
- Although I have never been to Russia and not familiar with historical Russia at all, I had the impression that the author captured and described the culture and atmosphere of the time very well. Throughout the story I could imagine the settings very well and become part of the Russian saga culture. The author creates a fascinating mythical world full of house and nature spirits and Father Frost, who is also well known in our country. Slavic mythology and the fairy tale about Djed Moros or Morozko, as Father Frost is also called, are artfully integrated into this historical period, so that in the end you are no longer sure whether this is a fairy tale adaptation or a historical novel. Nevertheless, I found the Winter King in particular very fascinating. The whole book has a mythical, fairy-tale atmosphere that does not force itself into the focus, but rather “lurks” omnipresent in the background, only to step into the light now and then.
- Vasilisa our protagonist is a strong, courageous, self-confident young woman with a big heart who stands by her convictions and values. Unlike many other female characters in the fantasy genre, she doesn’t need a male hero to stand by her side, which I found very refreshing! Through Vasilisa, the author conveys a female role model that defies social conventions, strives for freedom and independence and is braver than any man. Wild, untamable and unable to adapt, she makes life difficult for her father. At every opportunity, the young girl rebels against the typical image of women at the time. I admired her above all because she doesn’t just talk the talk but also acts the action.
- Katherine Arden has written a wonderful story set in ancient Russia, told very quietly and slowly. However, it was precisely this quiet way of telling the story that I particularly liked. It takes about half of the book before the story really begins, but this gives you the opportunity to slowly immerse yourself in Vasilisa’s world and get to know all the characters – and there are many. By getting to know Vasilisa as she grows up, her importance for the course of the story also becomes increasingly clear to you as a reader, because it runs like a thread through the whole book. And yet not everything revolves around her, you also learn about the rest of her family, her stepmother or the secondary characters, such as the newly arrived priest Konstantin, who makes Vasilisa’s life difficult.
So what are my final thoughts about it?
The Bear and the Nightingale is a quiet but beautifully told story set in historical Russia that introduces the reader to Russian folk tales. The author takes her time to introduce the different characters and lets the reader participate in the development of the protagonist Vasilisa. A beautiful story whose world I enjoyed immersing myself in repeatedly. In principle, two themes were combined here, on the one hand the idea of a fairy tale and on the other hand the theme of the image of women in days gone by, and I have to say that it was just too much for me in this 300-page book. I would have preferred to learn more about the Winter King and other mythical figures than to read another story about the typical image of women, especially as this was accompanied by rape and the marriage of a girl to an old man. This somehow took away the spirit of this beautiful story, which turns out to be a fairy tale. Nevertheless, one is immersed in a dark world that is nevertheless so colourful and despite ice and snow, described in a very convincing and detailed way. This is a powerful story about legends, faith, myths, demons and the unseen.
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