Bear and the Nightingale (Arden)

The Bear and the Nightingale  (Winternight Trilogy 1)
Katherine Arden, 2017
Del Ray
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781101885932

A magical debut novel that spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses.

But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales.

Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1987 (?)
Where—Austin, Texas, USA
Education—B.A., Middlebury, Vermont, USA
Currently—lives in Brandon, Vermont

Katherine Arden is a Texas-born author known for her Winternight Trilogy of fantasy novels—The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, both published in 2017, and The Winter of the Witch, in 2019.

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent her junior 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 B.A. in French and Russian literature, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crepes to serving as a personal tour guide. After a year on the island, she moved to Briancon, France, and spent nine months teaching. She then returned to Maui, stayed for nearly a year, then left again to wander. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know. (Adapted from the publisher.)

Book Reviews
(Starred review.) Arden’s debut is an earthy, beautifully written love letter to Russian folklore, with an irresistible heroine.... The stunning prose...forms a fully immersive, unusual, and exciting fairy tale that will enchant readers.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) You don't have to know and love Russian folklore to appreciate Arden's fabulist—and fabulous—debut novel, which tells the story of how Vasilisa Petrovna...saves her corner of medieval Russia's wild north.... Fleet and gorgeous as the firebird. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Utterly bewitching.... [A] lush narrative... [and] 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.

(Starred review.) [S]umptuous first novel...where history and myth coexist.... Arden has shaped a world that neatly straddles the seen and the unseen, where readers will recogniz[e] the imagination that has transformed old material into something fresh.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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