I admit that I was very puzzled by THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE. At the beginning, it sounded like a set of linked short stories. Oh well, I said to myself, the author clearly loves Russian folklore, so I suppose she is going to tell us her favorite stories.
Slowly, the book coalesced into a narrative centered on Vasya Petrovna, a young girl with The Sight. Of the five children born to her mother and father, she is the most like her mother, who was similarly gifted. There is also talk of a grandmother (her mother’s mother?) who also had this Gift.
Unfortunately, Vasya’s mother dies shortly after her birth, and in a household made up mostly of men, Vasya has no-one who is able to trammel her wildness. Consequently, she behaves like a boy. Not only does Vasya have The Sight, she is unusually good with horses. Of course, this tiny 14-year-old is able to ride savage stallions that would make grown men pale with fear.
However, Vasya is a kind-hearted soul and does her best to help her family. Her attempts are thwarted by her Wicked Stepmother Anna Ivanovna, who can also “see” things. Unfortunately for Anna, instead of seeing these creatures as friendly (as Vasya with her Pagan beliefs does) her Christian Religion constrains her to see them as Demons. (Note: In Russian these beings are called Domovoy, and have been compared to the Household Deities (Di Penates) of the Romans.)
Consequently, she lives in a state of successive panic attacks. It doesn’t help when handsome Father Konstantin appears, as his religious zeal causes everyone in the village (except Vasya) to live their lives in a succession of panic attacks, sure that they are destined for an Eternity in the Flames of Hell due to their Wicked Ways (i.e. their Pagan beliefs.)
Despite her kindness, most people are put off by Vasya. They don’t appreciate having a teenaged girl in their midst with her wide “feral” eyes, her hoydenish ways, her outlandish abilities to ride stallions. They whisper that she is a witch.
Poor Vasya is given a “choice” that was given to all teenaged girls in 14th-century Europe: Marry, or immure yourself in a Convent.
Instead, Vasya disappears into the Forest with Winter Demon Morozko, so as not to cause her family embarrassment, and more importantly, difficulties in managing their lands. (Her father is a Boyar, and her mother and stepmother are related to the Royal Family.) Had she remained home, there is a good chance she would have been burned at stake for being a witch.
The ending was as puzzling as the beginning. Vasya rides into the forest on her favorite stallion, discovers Morozko’s abode, and goes inside. THE END. But what about Father Konstantin? Does he obey Vasya’s repeated exhortations to leave the village so that everyone can calm down & experience some joy in this world? Or does he stay so that he can eventually entice Vasya into his bed? And what of Vasya? She disappears into the Forest. But is she not condemning herself (at the age of 14) to a life of Cold & Darkness with an Icy Demon? And didn’t her mother say that it was important to have this last child, this daughter, even it if might kill her? But how can Vasya do anything if she is in a Dark & Remote Forest?
So I went back to Amazon, only to discover that THE BEAR & THE NIGHTINGALE is the first in a series of three. Stay Tuned. Five Stars.