"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... "
review by Maryom
Vasya is the daughter of a rich lord allied through marriage to the princes of Moscow, but, although expected to spend her days by the fire perfecting her domestic skills such as sewing or cooking, she'd rather be outside, roaming the forests that surround their home, or spending her time in the stables with the horses. She's also possessed of an unusual gift, inherited from her 'witchwoman' grandmother - the ability to see and talk to the small gods and spirits of hearth, stable, rivers and woods. Some of these are mischievous, leading travellers astray or snatching the young and unwary, but others are helpful, performing chores for their human hosts and guarding against the darker forces that lurk in the forest. But this is a time when the older ways, and belief in these gods, are dying, being replaced by Christianity which would ideally rid the world of such 'demons', and while the smaller domestic spirits are in decline, leaving homesteads unprotected, something evil is growing in strength.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a fabulous, atmospheric blend of history, folk tale, and fantasy, with a real feel for the snowy depths of a Northern Russian winter. It's set in the 12th century, in the area that will become Russia, but which for now is ruled by Rus' princes paying tribute to the Khan of the Golden Horde. It's a time and place of which most readers (like me) will have little knowledge, and the author brings it wonderfully to life. Even for a wealthy family such as Vasya's much of life revolves around farming (at harvest-time everyone has to join in, including her father and the village's priest) and preparing for the long winter; in fact I think winter is as much a character in the book as the humans or spirits. I loved the authors's depiction of a family huddled round their enormous oven, listening to folk tales, sleeping beside and even on top of it, desperately trying to keep warm as temperatures plummet, and, in sharp contrast to that domesticity, the wilds of the forests stretching seemingly for ever in all directions.
The story starts fairly quietly, with emphasis on Vasya's childhood and family, then in the second half the fantasy element becomes stronger, leading to a showdown between the forces of good and evil which threatens the way of life of Vasya and her family.
Following the comment form Charlie (The Worm Hole) below, I looked for the US cover. It's much nicer I think, conjuring up the dark, wintry mysteriousness of the story, and the contrast between warm, safe house and untamed surrounding forest.
Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Genre - adult fantasy