At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
Words cannot describe how much I cherish this book. The characters were strong and described so well. The story was absolutely fantastic and so magical. ♡♡♡
Certain parts of the story felt so nostalgic to me. It reminded me of my upbringing with my Russian grandmother and our old Orthodox church. Matyushka, Batyushka and many of the other words in the story evoked a glimpse into my past. There wasn’t anything I didn’t love about this book. Happy with all of it, every word, even the ending.
I would definitely recommend reading the glossary in the back of the book first to understand the meaning of some of the words. ♡♡♡
I have high expectations and can’t wait for the second book “The Girl in the Tower.”
Interview with Katherine Arden
Q: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Katherine Arden: No, not necessarily. I loved reading and writing stories when I was a kid, but it was just for fun. I really didn’t seriously consider being a professional writer until I was halfway through drafting The Bear and the Nightingale. In college, I studied foreign languages (French and Russian) and wanted to join the foreign service. But I had always loved Russian fairy tales, going back to childhood. After I graduated from high school, I deferred university enrollment for a year to study Russian at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. In my third year of college, I returned to Moscow for further study as part of my degree. So I had a pretty extensive background in Russian by the time I graduated.
I still wanted to join the foreign service, but I was feeling a bit burnt out, so I moved to Hawaii to work on a farm. I didn’t mean to stay in Hawaii long, just to figure out what I actually wanted to do in life. But farm work is not always the most exciting (I was picking coffee and macadamia nuts) and so to entertain myself, I started writing a book.
My background in Russian made it natural to want to write a book set in Russia, and since I love fairy-tale adaptations, I knew I wanted to write a novel based on a fairy tale. Also, oddly enough, a Russian family was living on the farm next to mine. They had a five-year-old daughter named Vasilisa. She was an amazing kid, so brave and fierce and kind. When I met her, I said to myself, that kid could be in a book. So Vasya became my young heroine. All the other elements just came together and my book was born.
I ended up really liking the book-writing process, and decided to try to make a serious go at writing a book. It worked out.
Q: When did you start writing?
Katherine Arden: I started drafting The Bear and the Nightingale in the summer of 2011. I had a draft by the summer of 2012 and published it this January 2017. In that time, the book went through a ton of different drafts.
Q: When I read the book The Bear and the Nightingale, the themes and flavor reminded me of the classic “Women Who Run With The Wolves”. I wonder what were your literary influences? What books would you put at the top of your list as pivotal reads in your literary career?
Katherine Arden: As a kid, I loved Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce. I read everything those two ladies wrote. The Hero and the Crown was my favorite book for a long time, and its influence has stuck with me. Another very influential book for me was The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. Growing up, I had a set of Rudyard Kipling’s complete works, and I read The Jungle Book, The White Seal and Kim over and over again.
I have also always loved books set in nature like My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. I have an interest in mountain literature that has continued to this day: Annapurna by Maurice Herzog, Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, and The White Spider by Heinrich Herrer are a few of my favorites.
Once I got a little older, I got really into historical fiction, and many of my very influential reads fall into that genre. My favorite novelists are Patrick O’Brien (the entire Aubrey-Maturin series), Mary Renault (especially The King Must Die, The Bull From the Sea, and Fire from Heaven) and Dorothy Dunnett (The Lymond Chronicles). Another book that I have read over and over is The Far Pavilions by M.M Kaye.
Q: Seeing that you are a lover of Russian stories, one must ask: do you prefer Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? The short stories of Gogol or Chekhov? Are there any Russian authors that you feel are underrated or less widely known that you would recommend?
Katherine Arden: Lol. Dostoevsky because he has a fantastic eye for the dramatic and Gogol because he has a sense of the weird. My personal favorite Russian writers are Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Mikhail Bulgakov. Everyone should read Master and Margarita.
Q: What form of research was done to create such a beautiful and intricate story?
Katherine Arden: Well, the same way you do any research. Libraries. Buying obscure books on Amazon. The Internet. Talking to people. A lot of work.
Q: Is the medieval period of Russian history your favorite era? If so, why?
Katherine Arden: Not when I started writing, although the era has grown on me. I picked the Middle Ages because I wanted to write a book set in Russia, but before Russia was Russia. Before tsars, and the Empire, and Ivan the Terrible and the Revolution, before any of those things that combine to create the stereotype of Russia for the western reader. I wanted to come at the subject from a fresh perspective, and find an era where history could plausibly mix with fairy tales.
But since I started working on the Middle Ages, I have come to love the era for its own sake. It’s a time of profound change, poorly documented, and big on the mayhem, which makes it really fertile territory for a novelist.
I’d also enjoy writing a book set in the court of Peter I or Catherine II.
Q: How long did this story live and evolve in your mind before you set it to paper?
Katherine Arden: When I started, all I knew was that I wanted to write a book set in Muscovy during the Middle ages and based on a fairy tale. The rest grew in the process of putting words on paper.
Q: What was the most difficult part of writing the book? Was it a concept or attitude? What was the hardest scene to write and why?
Katherine Arden: Honestly, the whole book went through so many revisions, it’s hard to pinpoint where the hardest moment was. Setting the balance between the realistic and magical elements was a challenge. Konstantin’s arc was a challenge, as I recall, and doing the scenes between Vasya and Morozko.
Q: Was there any scene that you wrote and later cut from the final version that still weighs on your mind? If so, what was it?
Katherine Arden: Ha, the book that is now The Bear and the Nightingale is half the plot of the original manuscript. My editor had me cut it in half and rewrite the first half. The old second half is this whole defunct plot. With way more magic and romance and traveling and stuff. It’s just a whole different direction for the story. It’s a much better book now, but sometimes I regret my old plot. One day I’ll put it on my website as a random curiosity.
Q: The threat of dominion and tribute of the people of Rus to the Golden Horde is permeated throughout the book. Will the future books continue that conflict and struggle for independence? How might Vasya and Morozko play into that? Are there even sides to take, as an increasingly Christian Rus slips from tradition and belief in old ways? (Would love an answer if it won’t spoil anything!)
Katherine Arden: Yes, the conflict between Rus and the Golden Horde, as well as the balance between Orthodoxy and paganism are important themes in the next two novels. I won’t say exactly how it plays out (um spoilers) but Vasya and Morozko are both very involved.
Q: It seems that there were some romantic feelings developing between Vasya and Morozko. Would that be possible given he is immortal?
Katherine Arden: I mean, anything’s possible. That’s the delight of fiction. I think a bigger barrier is the fact that Morozko is obviously keeping things from Vasya, and that she still has some growing up to do before she’s ready for a romance with anyone. That being said, we have two books to go, and Vasya is an adult now, more or less, so the world and its circumstances will get bigger as Vasya does.
Q: You brought Russia very much to life in the book. Have you actually lived there? If so, what did you like most about the country? What part of Russian culture do you feel was the most difficult to get accustomed to?
Katherine Arden: I lived in Russia for a year when I was nineteen, then went back for several months as a junior in college. I loved Russia—the language, the sky, the forest, the people, the adventures. I spent a lot of time cutting class in parks talking to random people. I guess the hardest part was getting my Russian to a place where I could communicate freely. Once I got there, it was a huge help to adapting to life in Moscow.
Q: It seems that you are somewhat of a nomad, moving from place to place. What inspired you to move to Russia initially? Why did you choose Russia to be the setting for the series?
Katherine Arden: Very nomadic. I just like new places, and adventures fuel my writing. I went to Russia because I loved the idea of living there, and I wanted to go somewhere completely different and see what it was like. See question one for why I set my novel in Russia.
Q: During your studies in Moscow, did you spend time studying Orthodox Christianity, or time in the Russian Orthodox Church? You seem to have a lot of knowledge on the subject.
Katherine Arden: Um, I’m not Orthodox, but when I lived in Russia, I used to go to Orthodox services, because they are very beautiful, and I enjoy the calm of religious ritual. The rest of what I know about Orthodoxy comes from research.
Q: Did you enjoy stories like this as a young person, i.e. the darker aspects of some of the original versions of fairy tales, etc. and why did you gravitate to this type of fantasy world? Did you perhaps write some version of some fairy tales when you were young?
Katherine Arden: I really loved fairy tales as a kid. I had this series of books called The Enchanted World published in the 80s by Time Life Books. It’s this series of illustrated books where each book covers a separate element of folklore. Like one book is about dragons, one about ghosts, one about magical animals etc. I read those to death, and I would rewrite some of the stories contained in them. I was also a huge fan of the fairy tale retellings of Robin McKinley. I also really loved Russian fairy tales, and I had a book of those as well.
Q: How did you first discover the folk tales and myths that make up the basis for this story?
Katherine Arden: That book of Russian fairy tales from when I was a kid. I also studied Russian fairy tales in college, and read them when I was studying in Russia.
Q: I am so excited to hear this is the first book in a trilogy! Are there any secondary characters we were introduced to in The Bear and The Nightingale that we will see enlarged or in different roles in the subsequent books? I would love to see more of Sasha!
Katherine Arden: The three POV characters in book 2 are Sasha, Olga and Vasya herself, so you will definitely see more of them. Also Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, who is introduced just very briefly in Book 1 is an important presence (now grown up) in book 2. There are also some new important characters.
Q: Are you still writing your third book of this series? When do you think book #2 and #3 will be released? If you are done with #3, what are you working on now?
Katherine Arden: Still working on book 3. It’s in the pen-and-ink stage. Book 2 is coming out January 2018. Book 3, barring an unlikely disaster, will come out January 2019.
Q: Do you always see yourself sticking to this particular type of writing? Do you plan on writing more books based on European fairy tales? What ambitions do you have for your writing career?
Katherine Arden: For my next project, I want to write is a book about a traveling magician set in Renaissance France. I really enjoy mixing reality and fantasy, but I don’t necessarily see myself redoing fairy tales forever. I’d love to write all kinds of things. Romance, thriller, straight historical fiction. The sky’s the limit. I’d love to be the kind of writer who can just write whatever she feels like writing and have it be published. That’s the goal.
Q: The Bear And The Nightingale is so enchanting, with an invigorating atmosphere. Are environment and ritual important to you when you write? Also, do you have a specific daily writing discipline?
Katherine Arden: No, I can write anywhere and everywhere. I like changing it up. I really enjoy writing outside. When I’m drafting, I aim for 2K words a day no matter what. When I’m editing anything goes really—I tend to work long hours when I’m really into it. It’s a job, so it’s important to just get it done, wherever you are and whatever else you’re doing.
Q: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Katherine Arden: No such thing. Writing is my job. I earn a living doing it. I have to write, it’s that simple. You don’t get plumber’s block. What if a doctor called into his patients that he couldn’t come in because he had physician’s block? Ha. Writing’s no different. You get up every day, break out a pen (in my case) or a laptop and you write words. Sometimes they are terrible words. Sometimes not. But you can’t improve an empty page. So you string words together. That’s the job.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Katherine Arden: Don’t give up. Drafting a book is hard work, and editing it is harder work, and then publishing it takes patience and MORE hard work. So just keep plugging away. Don’t judge yourself. Everyone writes terrible first drafts. Also, finish the books you start. It’s easy to start a book. It’s hard to finish one, but you learn more from finishing than you do from starting.
Q: Has a trailer been made for The Bear And The Nightingale?
Katherine Arden: A book trailer? Yes Ebury in the UK made one. You can search for it on YouTube.
Q: If The Bear and the Nightingale were made into a movie, who would you like to see play the main characters?
Katherine Arden: Well in an ideal world unbound by space and time:
Pyotr – Liam Neeson
Konstantin – young Jude Law
Dunya – Judi Dench
Vasya – very young Charlotte Gainsbourg—maybe? Unsure.
Morozko – Benedict Cumberbatch circa Sherlock Series 1
Alyosha – dunno
Sasha – also dunno
Olga – no idea—thank God for casting directors
Q: Are there any social platform links readers could connect with you that you would like to share?
Katherine Arden: Instagram: @arden_katherine
About the author: