Katherine Arden’s bestselling debut novel spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.
“A beautiful deep-winter story, full of magic and monsters and the sharp edges of growing up.”—Naomi Novik, bestselling author of Uprooted
Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.
But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
Praise for The Bear and the Nightingale
“Arden’s debut novel has the cadence of a beautiful fairy tale but is darker and more lyrical.”—The Washington Post
“Vasya [is] a clever, stalwart girl determined to forge her own path in a time when women had few choices.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“Stunning . . . will enchant readers from the first page. . . . with an irresistible heroine who wants only to be free of the bonds placed on her gender and claim her own fate.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Utterly bewitching . . . a lush narrative . . . an immersive, earthy story of folk magic, faith, and hubris, peopled with vivid, dynamic characters, particularly clever, brave Vasya, who outsmarts men and demons alike to save her family.”—Booklist (starred review)
“An extraordinary retelling of a very old tale . . . The Bear and the Nightingale is a wonderfully layered novel of family and the harsh wonders of deep winter magic.”—Robin Hobb
“Haunting and lyrical, The Bear and the Nightingale tugs at the heart and quickens the pulse. I can’t wait for her next book.”—Terry Brooks
About the Author
Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.
Read an Excerpt
It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.
That evening, the old lady sat in the best place for talking: in the kitchen, on the wooden bench beside the oven. This oven was a massive affair built of fired clay, taller than a man and large enough that all four of Pyotr Vladimirovich’s children could have fit easily inside. The flat top served as a sleeping platform; its innards cooked their food, heated their kitchen, and made steam-baths for the sick.
“What tale will you have tonight?” Dunya inquired, enjoying the fire at her back. Pyotr’s children sat before her, perched on stools. They all loved stories, even the second son, Sasha, who was a self-consciously devout child, and would have insisted—had anyone asked him—that he preferred to pass the evening in prayer. But the church was cold, the sleet outside unrelenting. Sasha had thrust his head out-of-doors, gotten a faceful of wet, and retired, vanquished, to a stool a little apart from the others, where he sat affecting an expression of pious indifference.
The others set up a clamor on hearing Dunya’s question: “Finist the Falcon!”
“Ivan and the Gray Wolf!” “Firebird! Firebird!”
Little Alyosha stood on his stool and waved his arms, the better to be heard over his bigger siblings, and Pyotr’s boarhound raised its big, scarred head at the commotion.
But before Dunya could answer, the outer door clattered open and there came a roar from the storm without. A woman appeared in the doorway, shaking the wet from her long hair. Her face glowed with the chill, but she was thinner than even her children; the fire cast shadows in the hollows of cheek and throat and temple. Her deep-set eyes threw back the firelight. She stooped and seized Alyosha in her arms.
The child squealed in delight. “Mother!” he cried. “Matyushka!” Marina Ivanovna sank onto her stool, drawing it nearer the blaze.
Alyosha, still clasped in her arms, wound both fists around her braid. She trembled, though it was not obvious under her heavy clothes. “Pray the wretched ewe delivers tonight,” she said. “Otherwise I fear we shall never see your father again. Are you telling stories, Dunya?”
“If we might have quiet,” said the old lady tartly. She had been Marina’s nurse, too, long ago.
“I’ll have a story,” said Marina at once. Her tone was light, but her eyes were dark. Dunya gave her a sharp glance. The wind sobbed outside. “Tell the story of Frost, Dunyashka. Tell us of the frost-demon, the winter-king Karachun. He is abroad tonight, and angry at the thaw.”
Dunya hesitated. The elder children looked at each other. In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak it while he still held the land in his grip. Marina was holding her son very tightly. Alyosha squirmed and tugged his mother’s braid.
“Very well,” said Dunya after a moment’s hesitation. “I shall tell the story of Morozko, of his kindness and his cruelty.” She put a slight emphasis on this name: the safe name that could not bring them ill luck. Marina smiled sardonically and untangled her son’s hands. None of the others made any protest, though the story of Frost was an old tale, and they had all heard it many times before. In Dunya’s rich, precise voice it could not fail to delight.
“In a certain princedom—” began Dunya. She paused and fixed a quelling eye upon Alyosha, who was squealing like a bat and bouncing in his mother’s arms.
“Hush,” said Marina, and handed him the end of her braid again to play with.
“In a certain princedom,” the old lady repeated, with dignity, “there lived a peasant who had a beautiful daughter.”
“Whasser name?” mumbled Alyosha. He was old enough to test the authenticity of fairy tales by seeking precise details from the tellers.
“Her name was Marfa,” said the old lady. “Little Marfa. And she was beautiful as sunshine in June, and brave and good-hearted besides. But Marfa had no mother; her own had died when she was an infant. Although her father had remarried, Marfa was still as motherless as any orphan could be. For while Marfa’s stepmother was quite a handsome woman, they say, and she made delicious cakes, wove fine cloth, and brewed rich kvas, her heart was cold and cruel. She hated Marfa for the girl’s beauty and goodness, favoring instead her own ugly, lazy daughter in all things. First the woman tried to make Marfa ugly in turn by giving her all the hardest work in the house, so that her hands would be twisted, her back bent, and her face lined. But Marfa was a strong girl, and perhaps possessed a bit of magic, for she did all her work un- complainingly and went on growing lovelier and lovelier as the years passed.
“So the stepmother—” seeing Alyosha’s open mouth, Dunya added, “—Darya Nikolaevna was her name—finding she could not make Marfa hard or ugly, schemed to rid herself of the girl once and for all. Thus, one day at midwinter, Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, I believe it is time for our Marfa to be wed.’
“Marfa was in the izba cooking pancakes. She looked at her step- mother with astonished joy, for the lady had never taken an interest in her, except to find fault. But her delight quickly turned to dismay.
“ ‘—And I have just the husband for her. Load her into the sledge and take her into the forest. We shall wed her to Morozko, the lord of winter. Can any maiden ask for a finer or richer bridegroom? Why, he is master of the white snow, the black firs, and the silver frost!’
“The husband—his name was Boris Borisovich—stared in horror at his wife. Boris loved his daughter, after all, and the cold embrace of the winter god is not for mortal maidens. But perhaps Darya had a bit of magic of her own, for her husband could refuse her nothing. Weeping, he loaded his daughter into the sledge, drove her deep into the forest, and left her at the foot of a fir tree.
“Long the girl sat alone, and she shivered and shook and grew colder and colder. At length, she heard a great clattering and snapping. She looked up to behold Frost himself coming toward her, leaping among the trees and snapping his fingers.”
“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.
Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows. But something came to Marfa as she sat there; an icy blast whipped around her face, and she grew colder than ever. And then Frost spoke to her, in the voice of the winter wind and the falling snow:
“ ‘Are you quite warm, my beauty?’
“Marfa was a well-brought-up girl who bore her troubles uncomplainingly, so she replied, ‘Quite warm, thank you, dear Lord Frost.’ At this, the demon laughed, and as he did, the wind blew harder than ever. All the trees groaned above their heads. Frost asked again, ‘And now? Warm enough, sweetheart?’ Marfa, though she could barely speak from the cold, again replied, ‘Warm, I am warm, thank you.’ Now it was a storm that raged overhead; the wind howled and gnashed its teeth until poor Marfa was certain it would tear the skin from her bones. But Frost was not laughing now, and when he asked a third time: ‘Warm, my darling?’ she answered, forcing the words between frozen lips as blackness danced before her eyes, ‘Yes . . . warm. I am warm, my Lord Frost.’
“Then he was filled with admiration for her courage and took pity on her plight. He wrapped her in his own robe of blue brocade and laid her in his sledge. When he drove out of the forest and left the girl by her own front door, she was still wrapped in the magnificent robe and bore also a chest of gems and gold and silver ornaments. Marfa’s father wept with joy to see the girl once more, but Darya and her daughter were furious to see Marfa so richly clad and radiant, with a prince ’s ransom at her side. So Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, quickly! Take my daughter Liza up in your sledge. The gifts that Frost has given Marfa are nothing to what he will give my girl!’
“Though in his heart Boris protested all this folly, he took Liza up in his sledge. The girl was wearing her finest gown and wrapped in heavy fur robes. Her father took her deep into the woods and left her beneath the same fir tree. Liza in turn sat a long time. She had begun to grow very cold, despite her furs, when at last Frost came through the trees, cracking his fingers and laughing to himself. He danced right up to Liza and breathed into her face, and his breath was the wind out of the north that freezes skin to bone. He smiled and asked, ‘Warm enough, darling?’ Liza, shuddering, answered, ‘Of course not, you fool! Can you not see that I am near perished with cold?’
“The wind blew harder than ever, howling about them in great, tearing gusts. Over the din he asked, ‘And now? Quite warm?’ The girl shrieked back, ‘But no, idiot! I am frozen! I have never been colder in my life! I am waiting for my bridegroom Frost, but the oaf hasn’t come.’ Hearing this, Frost’s eyes grew hard as adamant; he laid his fingers on her throat, leaned forward, and whispered into the girl’s ear, ‘Warm now, my pigeon?’ But the girl could not answer, for she had died when he touched her and lay frozen in the snow.
“At home, Darya waited, pacing back and forth. ‘Two chests of gold at least,’ she said, rubbing her hands. ‘A wedding-dress of silk velvet and bridal-blankets of the finest wool.’ Her husband said nothing. The shadows began to lengthen and there was still no sign of her daughter. At length, Darya sent her husband out to retrieve the girl, admonishing him to have care with the chests of treasure. But when Boris reached the tree where he had left his daughter that morning, there was no treasure at all: only the girl herself, lying dead in the snow. “With a heavy heart, the man lifted her in his arms and bore her back home. The mother ran out to meet them. ‘Liza,’ she called. ‘My love!’
“Then she saw the corpse of her child, huddled up in the bottom of the sledge. At that moment, the finger of Frost touched Darya’s heart, too, and she fell dead on the spot.”
There was a small, appreciative silence.
Then Olga spoke up plaintively. “But what happened to Marfa? Did she marry him? King Frost?”
“Cold embrace, indeed,” Kolya muttered to no one in particular, grinning.
Dunya gave him an austere look, but did not deign to reply.
“Well, no, Olya,” she said to the girl. “I shouldn’t think so. What use does Winter have for a mortal maiden? More likely she married a rich peasant, and brought him the largest dowry in all Rus’.”
Olga looked ready to protest this unromantic conclusion, but Dunya had already risen with a creaking of bones, eager to retire. The top of the oven was large as a great bed, and the old and the young and the sick slept upon it. Dunya made her bed there with Alyosha.
The others kissed their mother and slipped away. At last Marina herself rose. Despite her winter clothes, Dunya saw anew how thin she had grown, and it smote the old lady’s heart. It will soon be spring, she comforted herself. The woods will turn green and the beasts give rich milk. I will make her pie with eggs and curds and pheasant, and the sun will make her well again.
But the look in Marina’s eyes filled the old nurse with foreboding.
Reading Group Guide
1. Throughout the novel, Vasya meets many strange creatures from Dunya’s fairy tales—from the domovoi to the rusalka to upyry. Which of the demons that Vasya encounters is your favorite? Which ones would you never want to meet?
2. Compare some of the fairy tales and creatures referenced here to your favorite Western fairy tales. What are some commonalties? How are they different?
3. What are some tropes or stock characters of the traditional Western fairy tale that you can spot in The Bear and the Nightingale? Were there any parts of the traditional Western fairy tale that were used in a way that surprised you?
4. Dunya is tasked by both Pyotr and the winter-king to give the talisman to Vasya, yet Dunya is conflicted. She fears for Vasya’s safety if she were to possess the talisman, but the winter-king insists that Vasya must have it in order to protect them all. Was Dunya right to keep the talisman from Vasya for so long?
5. Do you trust the winter-king? What do you think he is still hiding from Vasya?
6. The various demons and spirits begin to prophesize Vasya’s fate to her in mysterious riddles, and we learn bit by bit that the winter-king also seems to possess knowledge of what’s to come and the role Vasya is destined to play. What role do you think fate plays in the novel? How much of what happens is the result of choices made by the characters versus an inevitable destiny?
7. Who do you think is to blame for the suffering Vasya’s village of Lesnaya Zemlya faces: Konstantin? The villagers for neglecting their offerings to the demons? Anna for rejecting her second sight and punishing Vasya for hers? Metropolitan Aleksei for sending Anna and Konstantin to the village? Pyotr for allowing such misery to befall his village? Is the blame shared? Was the fate of the village inevitable?
8. To what degree is the character of Konstantin sympathetic? Does his passionate faith excuse his actions? Is he an unwitting dupe or a willing player in his own fall? Do his charisma and artistic talent conflict with or complement his vocation as a priest? Why?
9. What are some parallels between Vasya and her stepmother? What are some key differences between them? Why does Anna hate Vasya so much?
10. Vasya is faced with the choice of marriage, a convent, or a life in which she’s considered an outsider by her village and her family. What would you have done in her place?
11. Why do you think the villagers are so threatened by Vasya? What does she represent to them?
12. The Bear and the Nightingale is not a clear-cut story of good vs. evil, though there are many other opposing forces, including the Bear vs. Morozko, order vs. chaos, the old traditions vs. Christianity, and, of course, the Bear vs. the Nightingale. What are some other examples? How do these opposing forces overlap, and where do you think Vasya fits in?
13. Over the course of the book, we see multiple instances of characters correlating someone’s goodness with physical appearance. For instance, Vasya’s almost-husband, Kyril, is called handsome and is consequently revered despite his cruel personality. Vasya, meanwhile, is repeatedly called a “frog” and is quickly labeled a witch. What are some instances in your life where you have seen others being mislabeled based on their appearance? Are there times when you have felt like you have been mislabeled?
14. The Bear and the Nightingale is bracketed by sacrifice—first Vasya’s mother, then at the end her father. How is sacrifice an important theme in the book? How many characters are called upon to give up something important, even vital? Not just Vasya herself, but Anna and Konstantin, for example. How do the sacrifices of others shape the narrative?