Every fairy tale has a grain of truth in it. In Vaselisa Petrovna’s case, everything true about the world has a hint of the magical about it. Whether it is as she sits at the knee of her nurse Dunya as a small child, listening to tales of Father Frost and the foolish people who try to get the better of him, or as a teenager when she unwittingly meets the spirits of the great forest and learns to speak to them. Though the world is a dangerous place, Vaselisa finds, it is a manageable danger. Until something changes.
While there are many very self-conscious Cinderella reinterpretations, The Bear and the Nightingale‘s reliance–not on the Germanic lore many readers are familiar with–on Russian and Slavic tradition, its total immersion in a history, a place, a culture so entwined with the land that gave it rise, makes this more than just one tale, and very much an allegory for an entire world, which is how the folk tradition can really shine.
The competing forces of invasion from the east and south lend urgency to a tale that otherwise could have been much more leisurely, and thus have a lot less at stake. The Khan’s horde is an everpresent threat for Peotr, who is considered a rich boyar, but at the same time the push of Christianity and its influence on the southern city of Moscow, still little more than a jumped up trading post but striving for imperial greatness, draws a narrow line for him and his people to walk. Add in the demands of nature, the shifting threats of seasons and snows, and it would take very little to tip this community over the edge.
In the sub-arctic climates of eastern Russia, it is little surprise that Frost would be personified, but it is Arden’s use of the small spirits–those who inhabit the house and stable, the spirits of wood and water–that really bring a feeling of place to the story, and establish the stakes. It is the risk not to a great many people if the horde are not satisfied with the year’s tribute, but the risk to Vaselisa, her brothers, her nurse, her father, and those who have lived in the village for generations if the tenuous balance between human and nature spirit is not kept. But in a time of uncertainty, alliances and beliefs begin to shift, and what used to be lore comes to be seen as harmful superstition.
Vaselisa’s strength will be tested, but also her ability to reconcile her desires and her duty, and her ability to work with her people, instead of isolating herself. For lovers of folklore inspired fantasy with well-drawn characters, The Bear and the Nightingale is sure bet.