I hope you’re all well and getting excited for Easter. As we are approaching the end of March, I am well aware I haven’t posted about my choice of book for March’s instalment of Read The Year. The criteria for March was: Read a book about a woman you hadn’t previously heard of. The suggestions were all non fiction. However, I was inspired by a fellow blogging friends review of The Bear and the Nightingale. Thank you so much Orangutan Librarian! I’ve never heard of it, didn’t know about the characters and I didn’t know the writer. Without you, I probably wouldn’t have known about it. The author is female as is the protagonist. Therefore, it fits the criteria perfectly.
What’s it all about?
The novel opens in the middle of a cold night in the home of Marina and Pyotr Vladimirovich. The setting made me feel incredibly cold (helped by the description and the snow on the ground here whilst I was reading it!)
The family’s Nurse, Dunya, is telling the children a tale about a girl sent to marry the frost demon (Morozko). The tale shows how the girl was incredibly brave when the frost demon came to her. He rewards this by sending her back to her family with a large dowry.
The reader also learns that Marina is frail and pregnant once again. Whilst this causes concern, she decides she will have the baby as she knows this daughter will be special. Sadly, Marina dies in childbirth. As prophesied, Vasya is a special girl and she has the ability to see and speak to a number of spirits who live in her house and the surrounding forest. My favourite is the spirit who lives in the oven. These sprints embody helpfulness, mischievousness and also danger. For example, the water nymph likes to lure men to their death so she can feast on their death.
Vasya is a wild girl who lives to run away from her chores to be outside. When she is a child of 6 years, she gets lost in the forest and stumbles upon a sleeping man. She awakes him and asks for help. Whilst doing this she notices he only has one eye. She is naturally quite frightened. To save her, another man appears on a white horse.
“Wild birds die in cages.”
Pyotr knows he needs someone to bring his daughter into line; she needs a mother figure. He travels to Moscow to find another bride for himself and a husband for his daughter, Olga.
More descriptions of a freezing, bitterly cold Russia envelope Pyotr’s time there. The current Prince wants to make sure his son, who is still a child, will be safe to rule the land when he dies and that no one will try and derail him. He decides to marry off one such potential to Olga. After a scuffle. Pyotr returns with a necklace.
“I do not understand “damned.” You are. And because you are, you can walk where you will, into peace, oblivion, or pits of fire, but you will always choose.”
The prince also decides to marry off his daughter Anna. She is a slightly obscure character who comes across as quite cold. It is revealed that she is considered mad. She can also see the spirits but she’s convinced they are demons. By marrying Anna off, she will be hidden away.
Pyotr marries Anna and they return home. But, Anna is much worse because there are even more spirits there. She spends most of her time crying and alone. She is constantly seen praying or looking for the church. Olga is married off and goes to Moscow. Anna decides that Vasya can join her when she’s grown up, something that Vasya takes great comfort from.
The necklace from before is given from Pyotr to Dunya, to pass onto Vasya. Dunya recognises it as a talisman and is immediately afraid. She decides to keep it hidden. Yet in her dream, the strange man, we later learn to be Frost (or the frost demon) comes to her quite upset. She bargains with him to wait for the necklace to be passed on.
Much to Anna’s distaste, life continues as it was. Vasya continues to give offerings to the spirits and communicate with them. She continued to be happier outside exploring, rather than inside.
There is a new visitor to the community, a priest, Konstantin. His deployment at first bothers him as he views it as being dumped in the middle of nowhere. When he meets Anna, she reveals all about seeing demons. Konstantin decides God has sent him there to save everyone from their wicked ways. He feeds off their fears to convince and persuade them to give up the offerings to the sprints.
As a result of the decline in offerings, they start to weaken and call on Vasya to help feed them. There are much larger problems though. The weather is colder, the logs are burning faster and people are seriously struggling. Many beasts start to roam the village and people die in mysterious ways.
Vasya is warned by the spirits that there are vague evils that are coming because people have ceased to leave the offerings. The dead are signs of how it is worsening.
Dunya is visited again by the strange man (Morozko) pushing for the talisman to be given to Vasya. As before, Dunya bargains for one more year as she believes Vasya isn’t ready yet. Meanwhile, Anna believes and decides that all these problems are caused by Vasya. She is aware that she still speaks to the spirits and is stubborn and will not give up the old ways. Anna wants to marry her off to rid them of this problem. Both Pyotr and Dunya are fretful about the talisman and what it means. They know from the tales of the frost demon are always centred about maidens. Therefore, if she is married, he will lose interest in her.
Pyotr finds a suitable match for his daughter, in his opinion, and celebrations start in preparation for the wedding. However, Vasya doesn’t trust her fiancée because she can tell her horse does not like him and is scared of him. Trouble is foreshadowed as following this, Vasya’s nephew tries to ride her pony. The pony gets spooked when she sees a demon shadow and bolts. Vasya jumps onto the nearest gore and goes after them, saving the nephew. Despite, or because of her valiant efforts, her fiancée is embarrassed, sees that all is not what it seems (after all she isn’t your bog standard woman) and calls off the wedding. The only other option for women at this time was to be sent to a convent. Anna is all for this! She wishes she herself had been so lucky…
“Married! Not to retreat, but to be the mistress of a lord’s domain; not to be safe in a convent, but to live as some lord’s breeding sow.”
Once again Dunya is visited by another time, however this time it is Pyotr’s dead children because she continues to not give the talisman to Vasya. Her hand freezes when she wakes up and she grabs the necklace. She begins to die. She protects Vasya until the end. Just before she passes, she passes the talisman to her. Little does Vasya know what it holds for her.
Konstantin becomes besotted, almost obsessed with Vasya. It is his belief that she is a temptress, sent to seduce him from his holy art. He’s attacked several times by the spirits by Vasya saves him. He’s under the impression that this was her fault anyway.
He then starts to hear a voice quite frequently; his belief being that it is God. He urges all villagers to fear and despise Vasya in the hope that she is driven away. Konstantin convinces Anna to send Vasya to a convent now, her father can wait and will understand. Vasya obviously doesn’t wish to go. They have to tie her up ready for the departure the next day.
But Vasya is wise and is able to escape. She flees to the woods and ends up lost, exhausted and freezing. She stumbles again onto the one eyed man from her childhood (Medved) and is almost attacked by Dunya whom has been turned into a vampire. Morozko shows up just in the crack of time to save her and take her to his magical abode.
Vasya slowly recovers and she is told by Morozko that his brother needs her in order to escape the bounds placed upon him. The consequences would be disastrous if he ever did become free as he would cause war and feed on people’s fear. Vasya is given her own magical horse, Solovey, who follows her around. It is clear that these two care for each other. But, she wants to return home, despite how they behaved towards her.
“You are too attached to things as they are,” said Morozko, combing the mare’s withers. He glanced down idly. “You must allow things to be what best suits your purpose. And then they will.”
Konstantin discovers that the voice talking to him isn’t God but it is Medved. He is told that the voice will leave him in peace if he brings him someone who can hear the spirits. He realises that Anna would be perfect so he ticks her. Anna goes into the forest to meet her demise.
“It is for the best was on the tip of the priest’s tongue. But he thought again of years, of childbearing and exhaustion. The wildness gone, the hawk’s grace chained up… He swallowed. It is for the best. The wildness was sinful.”
Vasya returns in the nick of time to discover that Anna is missing. She enlists the help of her brother Alyosha to help. Vasya knows that Medved can use Anna to free himself. When she finds Anna, she sees a zombie attacking her. Anna dies and a battle breaks out between the spirits. They each take sides between Morozko and his brother, who has now turned into a bear.
Amazingly, Vasya is able to speak to the actual Dunya. She gets her to remember her past life and asks Morozko is take her to die properly. He does so, leaving the battle. This leads Vasya and her brother to fight the bear on their own. Her father turns up to save the day. Medved says if Pyotr let’s him have Vasya, he will leave everyone else alone but her father will not and can not do it. He sacrifices himself for his daughter. He does this without fear meaning Medved becomes bound once again and transforms back to the one eyed man.
Vasya realises she is now completely isolated and alone and that she must leave the village. No one trusts her, they all think she is still a witch. She decides she must leave but before she does she goes and warns Konstantin. She flies away on her horse with plans to see the world. Her first visit: Morozko’s house, where she is welcomed in from the relentless cold.
“Solovey will take me to the ends of the earth if I ask it. I am going into the world, Alyosha. I will be no one’s bride, neither of man nor of God. I am going to Kiev and Sarai and Tsargrad, and I will look upon the sun on the sea.”
I really enjoyed this book. It was magical on every page, but an adult magic. The characters are compelling. I loved the little spirits, especially the one who lived in the oven. I could feel the cold from the descriptions and I could feel the fear from the villagers when things were going wrong. At the back of my copy is a little sample from the next novel. More magic awaits.
Big love xxx