The depths of winter – Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale

Photo on 10-01-2018 at 19.54

I frequently find myself in a classroom with seven or eight brilliant emerging writers, who don’t, read the kind of fiction each other write. That’s why I introduced the rainy B&B bath test. ‘If,’ I say, ‘You were in a B&B and it was raining cats and dogs outside, and you picked up a book to take in for a long bath and it was this book (here I wave the manuscript concerned) and you read the first page or so…would you take it into the bathroom or try another?

If you would carry in for your bath, it’s a good book (even if you wouldn’t have bought it yourself). If you’d put it back down, then there’s something either wrong with the book or too narrow about your taste.

This book came to me via a Secret Santa and it was very much that kind of experience. I’d heard nothing about it. I wasn’t sure it was my sort of thing. I looked up 150 pages later.

We find ourselves deep in Early Modern Russia, when Christianity still sits uneasily on traditional belief. Winters are hard and long and hunger is normal…starvation is not unknown. In the dark and cold, when you don’t dare stray far from the stove and pray you have enough wood to keep it fed, your mental resilience can be the difference between life and death.

The book is a fantasy, but a fantasy based on the the various tales and spiritual concepts that the characters need for this mammoth task of survival. The interior lives of the characters  – a wild young girl called Vasya and her family, the people in her father’s fiefdom and the golden-haired priest that comes among them – are shaped by their beliefs. When an unusually hard winter hits, for Vasya it is an evil folklore spirit that walks among the benign ones she has befriended. For the priest, it is a sign that the people have sinned. Interior beliefs become a threatening reality, and everyone’s survival depends on Vasya.

There is an evil stepmother, a brutal suitor, gorgeous horses, the sweep of the Russian countryside, the glittering court of late Medieval Moscow…it’s quite a ride. And Vasya is a heroine to adore. It’s beautifully written and terribly atmospheric.

Don’t wait until you find it on the shelves of a remote B&B on a rainy day. Read it now. I understand the sequel will be available soon, so if you end up loving the world, you can live in it even longer than the 456 pages!

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