In the midst of all the research reading I’ve been doing, I have managed to read a few novels for fun. I read the trilogy by Katherine Arden that began with The Bear and the Nightingale. I’d read that a few years ago when it came out, then somehow missed the second book. The third book came out recently, so I reread the first to refresh myself before reading the whole series.
These are fantasy novels set in medieval Russia, built around some traditional Russian fairy tales and incorporated into bits of actual history. I’ve read some of the tales used in the story, but I’m not familiar enough with them to be able to say how much of these books are a fairy tale retelling and how much they’re something entirely new. At any rate, the result is a fleshed-out world and characters. The look at medieval Russia, which is apparently fairly factual, is almost like seeing something out of another world. It’s a very different place with an unusual (to modern eyes) culture, and their coping mechanisms for winter are interesting. It’s hard for me, a southerner, to imagine a winter so harsh that insulating your home with snow and ice keeps it warmer and the family would sleep on top of the stove. Then imagine traveling in these conditions, and putting coals from the fire in a trench, then building a pallet of branches on top of that to sleep on.
The story follows a girl/young woman growing up in a small village north of Moscow, the daughter of a nobleman. There are stories/rumors about her mother and grandmother and the fact that they might not have been entirely human. Our heroine, Vasya, seems to take after them. She sees all the little spirits who occupy the land and their homes — the ones who care for the oven, for the home, for the stable, the trees, the waterways. But there are darker spirits out there, as well, and they’ve noticed her. Whether she can protect her people from them depends on whether she’ll be allowed to by her stepmother, who’s fallen under the spell of a vain and paranoid priest.
Whether you want to read these in the winter and enjoy the atmosphere as you huddle under a blanket with a warm beverage or in the summer so that the trip to an icy land helps take you away from the heat is up to your own inclinations. I found them the perfect reading for a cold winter day. I put some Rachmaninov on the stereo, made some tea, and settled down for some vicarious traveling.
The pacing of these books is rather leisurely, especially the first one. There’s a lot of time spent establishing the world and the characters and hinting at the looming threat before the action kicks into high gear. I enjoyed playing in that world before the action started, but if you like a fast pace and non-stop action, these might not be to your taste. If you like wallowing in an interesting setting, they may be more to your taste. The later books in the series do kick up the intensity and the stakes. These are definitely recommended to those who want something different from most of what’s been published as mainstream fantasy, or if you liked Spinning Silver and the Russian setting of that.