The Bear and the Nightingale is a Russian fairy tale(s) retelling that follows Vasilisa (Vasya) as she comes of age in the harshly beautiful Russian countryside. After her mother dies in childbirth, Vasya develops a kinship with the house spirits that protect her home, village and the surrounding countryside from any evils that lurk in the woods. All is well until her father decides to remarry. Her new stepmother is deeply religious and sees the house spirits as demons; a newly arrived monk further enforces these believes. The townsfolk become afraid, and stop minding the house spirits. This leads to disaster and death as the evil lurking in the woods begins to creep ever closer. Vasya must work with the spirits to restore balance to her town, lest her town be completely consumed by evil.
As someone who grew up on a steady diet of Disney and fantasy books, I am a sucker for a good fairytale and this one hits the mark. It's very much a fairy tale for adult(ish) readers and the writing was so lovely and hauntingly atmospheric that it sometimes felt like I was the one traipsing through the Russian countryside. Vasya was a very likable character - headstrong and intelligent in a time where women were still viewed as a commodity, Vasya is not ok with her lot in life. She wants more than to just pop out babies for some lord; she wants to live her own life on her own terms. That struggle, set against the wintry backdrop of a magical Russian countryside, made for a very entertaining read.
While the writing and most of the characters were fantastic, I did have a few issues with the book. I loved the beginning and ending, but struggled mightily with the middle. Many side plots that barely had anything to do with the story were introduced and never resolved. This is explained by the fact that this book is the first in a series, but I feel like the story would've been better served to focus on the main plot.
Meandering middle aside, this was a great read. This book demands to be read under blankets or near a fireplace on a cold day. Pick it up and prepare to be transported to the snowy fields of the Russia of yore. 3 stars.