The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

About the Novel

Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.

Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.


The Bear and the Nightingale is a novel quite unlike the majority of fantasy that is out there nowadays. It’s set in our world, for one, in the forests of medieval Russia—then called Rus’. Katherine Arden is not a native Russian, but has a degree in French and Russian literature. Her knowledge of the subject area shows, and despite this being fantasy, the events have a certain gravity that makes them almost seem real.

The book follows Vasilisa—a girl born with a touch of magic—as she grows and rebels against “her place” in the world, despite familial and religious pressure.

This is what I would class as “fairytale fantasy”. It builds upon the Russian legends of Morozko, who is essentially the god of death, the god of winter, and Father Christmas rolled into one. Sound weird? Trust me, it works.

Uprooted is the most common comparison, and while it is probably the closest book I’ve came across in terms of style, the books are different. There’s no romance in this book, and it doesn’t have the near-YA feel that Uprooted does.


Note

I should give a small heads-up about the names in this book.

The names can be a little confusing, but it comes down to the relationships between the characters. From what I understand, Vasilisa is our main characters given name, but she is also called Vasya, or even Vasochka, and these are the pet-names or familiar names used by family and friends. Similarly, Sasha could also be called Sashka by a close family member.


Plot

It’s difficult to rate the plot of this book, as the story is more a journey of character. There’s no big dramatic twists, and there’s no sense of building up to a big climax. If this story were a river, it wouldn’t be a racing current with rapids leading to a waterfall. Instead, it’s a slow tributary winding its way through a cold, snowy forest before reaching its lake.

This isn’t to say that this is a “plotless” novel. There’s a clear story involving the conflict between Vasilisa’s belief in the old household spirits of her childhood stories, and her stepmother’s fierce devotion to Christianity.

There were a few noticeable issues with the pacing, particularly in the middle sections, and this can feel a little jolting.

Plot Score: 3.5/5


Prose

Shiiiet. The prose in this book. It’s gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. The writing style is the glue that holds this book together. It’s written in quite a formal tone of voice, with simile and metaphor that blend seamlessly into the description. It lends this atmosphere to the book that sucks you into the world of the story.

It’s the ideal book for winter. You can almost feel the chill of the cold wind rolling off the pages. It’s incredible, and is a perfect complement for the setting.

Don’t believe me? Random house has made the first 50 pages of this book available for free on Scribd. Go read a bit of it, and you’ll see. As an aside, the rest of the book basically follows on in this style. So if you like what you see… buy it.

Prose Score: 5/5


Character

The character work in this book is both outstanding, and a little lacking.

Vasilisa is our main character, and she develops in a really believable and satisfying way throughout the story. There is the odd short time skip, but we get to see her grow from girl to women.

Her stepmother Anna is almost the stereotypical evil fairy stepmother, but not quite. She is a woman who suffers from visions of “demons”. Anna wants more than anything to join a convent, where she can live her life dedicated to the religion she loves. Unfortunately, she is made to marry, despite her mental instability. Thus, there is a realistic justification for her actions in the story—which lends a layer of sympathy to her despite how infuriating she can be.

Despite these two characters though, and a maybe a handful of others which I won’t describe for spoiler reasons, some of the other characters just seem like background scenery. This may be intentional, as Vasilisa is very much a loner, but I can’t help but wish there was a little more depth to these supporting characters.

Character Score: 4/5


Setting

The majority of this book is set around the village where Vasilisa lives, deep in a forest of Rus’. This is set in a time and place where a harsh winter could be lethal, killing off whole families if they struggle to find food. This harsh and spooky reality contrasts with Vasilisa’s wild optimism and drive throughout the book. This is her home, and she knows how to live here—something which can’t be said for some of the other characters.

The world of the Bear and the Nightingale feels alive. It’s harsh, it’s spooky, but it’s also magical. There’s always this feeling that something, sinister or magical, is lurking just around the corner.

I don’t want to say too much more. This is the kind of thing that should be experienced.

Setting Score: 4/5


Summary

So there you go, the Bear and the Nightingale is a wonderful, haunting book, with excellent character growth and a really strong setting. This is one of my favourite books of the year, and so I’m thrilled to have finally written an in-depth review. Personally, I can’t wait for The Girl in the Tower, which is the next book in the series, though I should note that The Bear in the Nightingale stands very well on its own.

If you’re a fan of high-action sword fights, explosions, and twist-turny tales, this book may not be for you. If you’re a fan of slower character-focused tales, lyrical prose, and reading in the winter by the fireplace, then this is the book for you.

 

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