“Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”

What is this book about?

Set at the edge of medieval Russian wilderness in a time where magic, tradition, and spirits were to be respected and upheld, Vasilisa was raised on fairy stories. Her nurse taught her ever since she was young to honor the spirits that protect their home and land from evil, but that all changes after her father remarries.

Vasilisa’s new stepmother is worse than a skeptic – she is afraid. A devout, city-raised young woman whose dreams of joining a convent were ruined by an arranged marriage, Anna is disgusted and appalled by the reverence with which the townsfolk and her new family speak of these pagan demons. She forbids the rituals that kept their village peaceful and prospering for so long, and it isn’t long before the effects start to show.

It is soon up to Vasilisa to protect those she loves. Gifted – or cursed – from birth with powers that unnerved even her family, she’ll have to defy her severe stepmother to do what it seems only she realizes will save them all.

Why is it boring?

Say what you will about not judging books by the cover, but I’ll be the first to admit it was the beautifully illustrated hardcover version of this novel that was the deciding factor in my reading it.

Nonetheless, there was something clumsy and halting about the prose. Maybe it was all an intended part of the rustic feel of a ‘folk tale’, but two pages in, and I’d encountered enough commas to have lasted the entire book.

While the pace seemed to drag at times as well, I realize in retrospect that maybe fast-paced, jam-packed modern fantasy has just made my patience for the slower, meandering tempo of a classic seem drawn out in comparison.

Who would you recommend it to?

There was something refreshingly original and genuinely reminiscent of a classic folktale about this novel. I’ll be honest – I was half waiting for the romantic twist that seems so inevitable these days when two characters are introduced instantly at odds; it seems like the obvious introduction to every romantic subplot ever, but instead of I was left pleasantly surprised.

Absorbingly atmospheric and appropriately grim, if you are a fan of a classic fairy story vibe or folk tale premise very faithful to the old style, this book is up your alley.

Why should I read it if it’s boring?!

There were a lot of character-based details that I really appreciated about this novel.

Vasilisa was painted from the start as an oddball, but the author never tried to make it ‘cute’ or ‘quirky’ like some hackneyed and misunderstood young adult protagonist (no shade, I love my YA). She was genuinely unsettling in the eyes of the other villagers and even her family at a time when witches were a real and believed threat. Sometimes you wanted to reach through the pages and shake her: “Act normal! You’re going to get yourself burned at the stake!” I wanted to shout, but Vasilisa was obliviously wild and entirely unapologetic – and good for her!

Even the ‘antagonists’ – if they could even be labeled that – couldn’t really have it held against them. Everybody’s behavior and beliefs were written believably and empathetically. The fear of the unfamiliar is a real justification for some awful behavior, and at the end of the day, each character could have been the protagonist in their own story, albeit a tragedy.

The characters were not written to be flawlessly adored, and Vasilisa was a brilliant protagonist with her own agenda and little time for fostering good opinion or entertaining the likes of men.

This novel was a breath of icy fresh air jam-packed with enchanting Russian fairy stories, fantastical mythological creatures, and a small handful of great characters that gave the narrative all the forward momentum it needed.

Rating: 3/5

Buy The Bear and the Nightingale at Bookdepository or at Bol.com.

And if you want to know what other boring books we recommend, you can find out here.

Author

Tharuka lives in Western Australia, gradually working her way through law school and life in general. When she isn’t procrastinating study or working, you can find her living off tea, biscuits, and the neighbourhood gossip as she makes her way through her ever-expanding personal library of sci-fi and fantasy.

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