The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the NightingaleI can’t believe this excellent story is a debut novel.

Old Nurse tells the children a story of The Wicked Stepmom [tm] who sends her beautiful step daughter to marry Lord Frost. Stepdaughter comes home with a chest of gold. Stepmom sends daughter. Daughter comes home frozen to death.

Then the children’s mom dies after birthing a daughter, Vasilia. A fairy daughter.

Ooh, can you spell foreshadowing?

The plot could have gone straight down the expected path, but instead there are many plot twists where a standard trope is turned sideways, and the unexpected pops up. Just for starters, Vasilia is not magically beautiful. Her siblings call her frog-face. And they still love her: one does not have to be beautiful to be beloved.

When Daddy Pyotr goes to the Tsar’s city to find a wife for himself and a husband for his eldest daughter, he finds both… um. Well, that was unexpected. Pyotr also meets the bad guy? maybe? or is that the ambiguous could-be-good, could-be-bad, lets-see-how-he-likes-you.

The new wife is supposed to tame fairy-daughter Vasilia, but she has her own problems. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the Tsar has a problem too – will no one rid him of this troublesome priest? Exile to Pyotr’s forest solves the royal problem, and seems to solve New Mama’s problem too – but the fairy daughter is not such a good daughter of the Church. Here’s a conflict that was not foreshadowed in the old nurse’s story…

Magic amulets, spirits of the hearth & stable, spirit of the stream, and of course Lord Frost make this a magical story. The Russian naming and nick-naming system is very grounding, for a magical story. Finding out who are the Bear and the Nightingale – amazing. Watching

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