One of my favorite books last year was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a fantasy set against an Eastern European backdrop. Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale takes place in a similar setting, and also features as its protagonist a girl with a previously unsuspected magical talent. Bear, however, is more deeply rooted in real-world Slavic folklore. Beings such as the domovoi and rusalka play a major role in the unfolding of the story.
The novel also delves into the political intrigue of Moscow. The Grand Prince’s attempts to secure his son’s succession, the tension between the Orthodox Church and the folk beliefs of the people, and the delicate situation with the Khan of whom the Grand Prince is theoretically a vassal, all contribute to the plot. (One plot thread, however—a faction in Moscow that wants to rebel against the Khan, whose own political situation is seen as precarious—never goes anywhere.)
The main character has a large household: a father, stepmother, stepsister, four siblings, a priest who comes to live with the family, and a nursemaid who plays a grandmotherly role. Arden does a good job of differentiating all these characters (particularly the siblings and half-sibling) from each other, maintaining consistent characterization so that the reader doesn’t become confused as to who’s who.
Arden is planning to release a sequel, The Girl in the Tower, in December. I’m excited to read it and see where the further adventures of Vasilisa (a name that was surely not chosen by accident!) take her.