There are books that seem to be made for reading in a certain weather or place. Eve Babitz is summer reading while Doctor Zhivago is winter, Zadie Smith is London and Crazy Rich Asians is Singapore. It is of course not necessary nor always possible to match the books to the context – if you live in the tropics, your weather options will be limited -, but sometimes it just works so well that it becomes an integral part of the reading experience.
Katherine Arden’s The Bear and The Nightingale is a winter book and not just any winter – a serious, freezing, you-might-die-of-cold winter of sparkling frost and danger. It is inspired by 14th century Rus, the not yet unified Russia, and Russian folklore. I read it at my mother’s place (literally on the oven) a bit more than 50 kilometers from the Russian border, during one of the few proper winter days we’ve had, in a house surrounded by forest and almost snowed in.
Even if you do not have the right backdrop, I do recommend you read the book. I’ve been lucky with my first fantasy picks of 2018. I started the year with The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin’s tour de force that I will most likely write about when I finish the trilogy. And now this: a beautiful, magical coming-of-age story in a setting not too often explored in Western literature.
Arden is excellent with atmosphere, her Russian village seems real and the winter very, very cold. The language is lyrical, but not too flowery – something I don’t have a very high tolerance for. It has been described as a dark fairytale and it is accurate, while not being too dark and not an actual retelling. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it and already after 20 pages it seemed astonishing that no-one had thought of something like this before (which reminds me that I need to read Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless).
The book is also strong when it comes to characters and relationships, especially family relationships. Vasilisa is a great protagonist – clearly special and gifted, but still relatable. Arden explains in an interview how she was constantly balancing her wishes for the heroine with what she might realistically do in Medieval Russia and I think she did it well. I also felt she did a very good job with human villains, if you can call them that. Of course, it helps when the ultimate baddie is fantastical, so we get the epic evil without turning the other characters into black-and-white figures.
For Estonian readers, a lot here is half familiar, as we have read the fairy tales and recognise most of the words Arden has borrowed from Russian. She has also explained why she has been inconsistent with transliteration in many cases (aesthetic and familiarity reasons, mostly) and generally, I’m completely fine with that. I did find it weird to have Moscow and Moskva river in the same paragraph, though.
Last weekend, I was ranting to my sister about the limits of fantasy. Not the ones inherent in the genre, but the ones put there by writers and readers. Somehow, when we have the opportunity to imagine ANYTHING, we mostly end up imagining, or at least reading about, a nostalgic version of Medieval Western Europe – with buxom maidens serving beer in cosy inns. And elves. It brings me so much joy that this is changing, not because I have anything against elves or inns, but because there is so much else out there to explore.
Have you had any “oh, this book was so perfect for that place/time/weather” experiences? Or any recent fantasy reads you’ve loved?