I love to discover new fairytale retellings! Hunted and The Bear and the Nightingale top my favorite recent releases. These young adult novels move beyond the standard fare of Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, into the lesser-known world of Russian fantasies. Both are wonderfully well-written, with nuanced characters and a gripping plot. And although they’re set primarily in the frigid landscape of Russian winter, each makes for a fascinating read at any season of the year.
A Journey of Desire
She moves like beauty, she whispers to us of wind and forest–and she tells us stories, such stories that we wake in the night, dreaming dreams of a life long past. She reminds us of what we used to be. She whispers to us of what we could be.
Meagan Spooner’s Hunted is a fresh retelling of Beauty and the Beast. The medieval Russian setting gives it a very different flavor from other versions of the tale. It also references other Russian folktales, particularly Prince Ivan and the Firebird.
Yeva, nicknamed “Beauty” by her father, lives in comfortable wealth with her father Tvertko, two loving sisters, and a coterie of faithful household servants. Still, she misses the freedom she enjoyed as a child, when Tvertko, the greatest hunter in all of Rus, would take her bow-hunting along with him.
Then, Mongols attack her father’s trading caravan and leave the family destitute. Yeva’s father moves his girls to the one place left to them: a small hunting lodge at the edge of a vast, uncharted forest. It’s not long, however, before Tvertko becomes consumed with tracking down a mysterious Beast he has glimpsed in the depths of the wood. When her father disappears, Yeva fears that the Beast has killed him. She’s determined to find the monster and avenge her father’s death.
Yeva’s search brings her to an enchanted valley, caught in eternal winter. Creatures from Russian fantasies roam the woods: the rusalka, the water-maid who lures unwary travelers to their death; the leshy, a wood-spirit who speaks in riddles; and Lamya, the dragon-woman. Strangest of all is the Beast himself: an enormous gray wolf who lives in a ruined castle. A wolf who is somehow also a man–a man who hears the music of the magical wood, and longs for the unattainable.
There are no friendly castle servants in this tale, invisible or otherwise. Beauty and the Beast are on their own, pitted both for and against one another. The Beast needs Yeva’s skills as a hunter in order to break his enchantment; Yeva seeks the Beast’s weakness in order to destroy him. But neither has counted on finding their heart’s true desire in one another.
Hunted is told from the alternating perspectives of Yeva and the Beast, giving readers a glimpse into the anguish, hate, courage and hope of each. We feel their struggle, and witness their gradual transformation. The result is a heart-pounding tale that will keep readers spellbound to the final page.
Fantasies and Fear
Vasya ran into the woods, bruised and panting. Her loosened cloak flapped about her…She darted headlong from shadow to shadow, until the shouting grew fainter and at last died away. They dare not follow, thought Vasya. They fear the forest after dark. And then, darkly: They are wise.
The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden, also takes place in medieval Russia. It’s the first novel in Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the next two volumes! Arden studied in Moscow for a time, and her book contains many references to Russian customs, language, and historical figures. These, combined with Arden’s familiarity with Russian folklore, lend wonderful depth and richness to her tale.
The Bear and the Nightingale draws inspiration from Russian legends of Vasilisa the Beautiful. In Arden’s version, Vasilisa (known as “Vasya” to her family and friends) is the granddaughter of Czar Ivan the Great. Her father is a wealthy boyar of the north, hard but kind in his own way. He loves his wild, coltish Vasya–although he also partly blames her for his wife’s death in childbirth. Her stepmother Anna, however, is jealous of Vasya’s savage beauty, and fearful of the unnatural magic that Vasya appears to possess.
Since childhood, Vasya has had all manner of “invisible” friends: the domovoi who lives in the oven; the vazila who looks after the horses; the rusalka who swims in the lake. Anna’s bitterness towards her stepdaughter gradually deepens into outright hatred. She’ll do anything to get Vasya off her hands: marry her off, commit her to a convent…or send her into the winter forest to freeze to death.
But Vasya’s family and village need her more than they imagine. Medved, the spirit of fear and darkness, is awakening in the wood. In order to protect the people she loves, Vasya must give up everything she holds dear, and call on the powers she has long kept hidden…along with a host of unlikely allies.
Tales Come True
Although Meagan Spooner and Katherine Arden each write in a unique and distinctive style, Hunted and Bear and the Nightingale share many common themes. Both novels, of course, are set in a similar time and place, and both draw on settings and characters from Russian folklore.
Their heroines also hold much in common. In these deep-winter tales, Yeva and Vasya must battle both natural and supernatural forces in order to survive. Each young woman loves her family dearly, and feels the tension between loyalty to their expectations, and her own desire to be part of a larger world.
Gentleness and grace are not strong suits for either heroine. However, Vasya and Yeva display admirable tenacity, courage and imagination. Each has a fierce desire to live, but also the willingness to face death bravely. And in order to achieve their aims, both must realize that the fantasies they’ve heard since childhood are real…and they are part of the stories!