Fantasy (Teen), YA Fiction

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

When I first heard about this book, I had my doubts. The story sounded interesting but I worried that it would fall into the trap that a lot of fantasy stories based on fairy-tales get into. I am so glad that I chose to read this book anyways, because it was absolutely fantastic!

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind – it means more time with her wonderful siblings, listening to their nurse’s fairy tales. When Vasilisa’s father decides to remarry after the death of his wife, it is in the hopes that the new wife will be a good influence for Vasilisa. Fiercely devout, Vasilisa’s stepmother forbids her family from practicing any “pagan” rituals and honoring the household spirits. While the family does her bidding, Vasilisa worries about the consequences of these actions. When crops begin to fail and misfortune plagues the village, Vasilisa’s concerns prove to be true. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows even harsher in her desire to confine Vasilisa and make her conform. As danger looms ever closer, Vasilisa must defy everyone to protect her family.

This was an absolutely beautiful book. I devoured it in one sitting and it is one of my favorite books of this year. I rarely rave about a YA fiction novel but this one deserves all the praise I can give it! I remember reading some of the traditional folk tales native to Russia and I was very happy to see them incorporated so well in this story. It made these folk stories come alive and seem so vibrant! Not only is this story rich in culture, it also has great characters. Vasilisa, also known as Vasya, is such a strong female character and I absolutely adored her. She is not beautiful in terms of traditional forms of beauty, but she manages to capture everyone’s attention with her fire and energy. I love that she is independent and strong and unafraid. I like how there are characters that complement her and that function as points of comparison. The character of the stepmother and the priest were very interesting to me; I liked that the author didn’t just label them as evil but rather, built layers of complexity for them. The mythical creatures were also so interesting and wonderful and I loved reading about Vasya’s interactions with them all. Suffice to say, this novel hit every note and was amazing in every way. I was thrilled to hear that there is a sequel to this novel and I cannot wait to read it when it comes out. Regardless of if you are a fan of YA fiction or not, this is a novel I would recommend to anyone who likes fantasy and strong female protagonists!

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