And Then I Read: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katharine Arden

Published in 2017, this first novel is fantasy with an unusual historical background, taking place in Russia in the fourteenth century, a time and place I knew very little about. Russia as a nation did not exist then, it was a collection of city-states and land owners under the general rule of The Golden Horde, the Asian invaders that swept into eastern Europe led by Genghis Kahn two hundred years previously. In the book they are off-scene and referred to as the Tatars. There is also the influence of the Eastern Orthodox church, which has a large presence in the area, holding positions of power in the cities, and with priests and monks in the countryside presiding over small churches.

The family of Pyotr Vladimirovich lives on the outskirts of the northern forests, where the old pagan gods and elemental creatures are still worshipped alongside the new Christian god in an uneasy partnership. Pyotr is the lord of his village and surrounding lands, but his family is not lordly. They work the fields, hunt and celebrate the seasons alongside their friends and fellow villagers. In addition to worshipping in their small church, they leave offerings to the local spirits of the house, the yard, the stable, and so on. Pyotr’s three sons and a daughter are surprised to learn that their mother is pregnant again. She is old and frail, and Pyotr thinks she will not live through her pregnancy, but Marina is determined to do so because her own unspoken powers sense her new daughter will have strong powers too. Marina gives birth to Vasilisa, called Vasya, but does not long survive her.

As Vasya grows, she comes to understand that the unusual creatures and powers inhabiting their home and land that she can see and talk to are not visible to others. In the forest she meets more dangerous beings, but manages to avoid their clutches. When Pyotr takes a new wife, Anna, it turns out she also can see the spirits, but to her they are demons, and she is frightened of what she sees, and spends as much time as she can in the church. When she realizes Vasya can see and talk to these spirits, Anna is sure she is a dangerous witch.

A new priest, Konstantin Nikonovich, comes to the village church, and he and Anna conspire against Vasya. After a while, Konstantin is seduced by a dark power that wants to destroy the village, while Vasya is befriended by another old god who tries to protect her and help her save the village and her family. As these warring elements clash in an escalating battle for the hearts and minds of the people, Vasya begins to discover her own magical abilities, but will they be enough to save her?

I enjoyed this book, and will buy and read the rest of the trilogy. I had some problems at first with the names because each person has two or more versions, and it makes keeping track of who is who confusing, but I found both the characters and the plot engaging and exciting. While this is largely a familiar battle between good and evil, there are many twists and turns that kept me guessing, and the magic and fantasy elements are fresh and unusual.

Recommended. Thanks to Andrea Bergner for the suggestion.

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