Vasilisa loves winter nights huddled around the fire with her siblings, listening to fairy tales of home and forest spirits and the blue-eyed winter demon, because she also has special gifts that she keeps secret. But when her mother dies, her father marries a woman of the faith, who forbids the family to honor the household spirits. Crops begin to fail and evil creatures approach from the wilderness. Vasilisa must defy her family to save them.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a lovely Russian folk tale in both spirit and story. The opening fireside story as told by Vasilisa’s nurse expertly foreshadows the real tale. The quaint medieval Russian village on the edge of the Russian wilderness is a fantastic setting for a clash of old gods and new, in which modern gods are at the forefront of belief but uncertainty and superstition keep the old rituals alive. If you see comparisons to The Night Circus or Uprooted, it’s because all these novels are permeated with a rich atmosphere so thick you have to wade through the imagery like a heavy fog to get to the plot.

Unfortunately, Vasilisa and her family and their motivations never quite hook me. None of the humans ever quite do anything unexpected, despite spending so much time growing up with feisty and stubborn Vasilisa as she explores the wild, rugged forest where she is most at home. In fact, until the climax, Vasilisa spends most of her time trying to convince her family that she is big enough or capable enough to make her own decisions instead of rebelling or proving her worth, so be prepared for a slow plot.

Recommended for fans of moody atmospheric modern fairy tales!

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”