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Arden’s lyrical and sumptuous debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, transports readers to medieval Russia. History and folklore blend together seamlessly in this dark fairytale.
The story centers around Vasya, a girl who inherited her grandmother’s magical abilities. She lives with her father, four older siblings, and nurse in the harsh countryside where winter lasts most of the year. The fairy tales her nurse, Dunya, tells are only entertaining stories for everyone but Vasya. She has the ability to see and communicate with the nature and household spirits. Although the others can’t see these spirits, the old Pagan beliefs still linger, and offerings are left for them.
Everything changes when Vasya’s father returns from a visit to Moscow with a new bride, a woman who shares her ability to see the old Gods and spirits. Unlike Vasya, who sees them as friends, Anna perceives them to be evil. The new village priest bands together with Anna in an attempt to stamp out the old Pagan ways, forcing the villagers to ignore the local deities. This has terrible consequences. The once joyful villagers now live in fear, which the evil creature (known as the Bear) thrives on. Dark forces have awoken, the benevolent deities begin to fade away, and Vasya must use her powers to save her village.
This is a book to be savored. The pacing is slow, the main character compelling, and the language utterly enchanting. There were a few story threads that were left unfinished, and one can only hope that these will be explored in the sequel.
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