The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Goodreads | Amazon)
I’ll admit it: I had no idea what this was about when I added it to my shelves. I kept hearing high praise for this book, bought it for Kindle during a flash sale, and when I was searching for a book to fit a Read Harder Challenge prompt, slotted the title into my “definitely will read in 2018” list. That said, I’m actually surprised that only came out last year; the amount of buzz surrounding this novel made me think it’d been around for much longer. It has earned its attention in the book world. It is beautifully written, keeps tension, is long but doesn’t feel long, and is an overall enjoyable read. It is part one of a trilogy.
In northern Rus’, Pyotr Vladimirovich leads his fellow farmers and townspeople in a modest village. His wife Marina gives birth to their fifth child and second daughter, Vasiliya, and dies. Vasya, as she’s nicknamed, is an unusual child who shares a special trait with her maternal lineage. Pyotr’s second wife — a devout woman — and a new priest arrive from Moscow and convince the townspeople to stop paying honor to the old gods. Soon Vasya connects the weakening of the town’s prosperity with the weakening of the old gods’ spirits, but will she help her people before it’s too late and the biggest danger comes?
It’s hard to summarize without giving away too much; I’ve kept my summary to the confines of the one on Goodreads but even then it feels like a lot — ah well. It’s a slow-moving tale, full of depth and detail. It is the first book of a trilogy, but there is enough of a sense of closure that I don’t feel the urge to rush out and read book 2 immediately.
Do you believe in fairy tales?
The story is so rich that it’s difficult to talk about one bit without also picking at a piece of a different strand; everything is so tightly woven together and beautifully balanced. I think the biggest thing I can say is that the characters really made this story. Vasya is a young, precocious girl who turns out to be a great heroine. The reader is with Vasya from her birth to her teen years, so we see the progression of her abilities, the maturation of how she interacts with her family, and the way she observes the other souls around her. I especially love how she interacted with the priest, Father Konstantin, who is determined to make the entire village worship only one god. She’s respectful without being meek, opinionated without being too headstrong.
Vasya has grown up listening to her nurse, Dunya, tell stories over the fire. In this part of Rus’ (medieval Russia), families left out offerings for the old gods while also starting to worship the newer teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of old vs. new, and I really liked how every character, from each of Vasya’s siblings to her stepmother to the priest, managed their faith and dealt with their religious opinions differently… like real people! No one felt like a caricature. When a character pushed too hard or became even more vehement about their convictions, it was because they felt it was their moral duty.
Arden weaves in a lot of fairy-tale creatures — the Russian equivalents of sprites and vampires and gods. There is a moment in the book (I won’t describe the context so you can discover the story bit on your own) when a rusalka (sort of a Slavic mermaid or lake nymph) tries to draw a character into the lake for a meal, as rusalkas are wont to do. Here’s my illustration:
It takes a lot for me to get drawn into these dark fairy tale stories. The most recent one I can think of was S. Jae-Jones’ Wintersong which is sort of similar in style and feel but set in Germany. I thought everything was pitch-perfect — atmosphere, dialogue, descriptions, tension, action sequences — until I hit a certain point.
Here be spoilers
If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to be spoiled, stop at this point.
I did not like the battle at the end of the book. Something about it was just so off to me. The tension throughout the book was so perfect, and we knew that it was leading to a climax, but I didn’t expect it to be an all-out battle with kicking and fighting and such. I expected the spirits to act differently, be sneakier. Here is the dark energy, the upyr with its creepy side-crawl drinking blood from people in their beds. The creepy and subtle mystery of the Bear and the dark spirits, their growing energy, were what drew me in. The battle was too brazen and out there. It was sort of like Stranger Things season 1 (mild spoiler for ST) when you don’t know what is attacking the deer, but then in the final episode they flick the lights on in the classroom and you see the Demogorgon. It’s like, oh, that. That’s kinda silly.
I understand why, story-wise, the battle had to happen — the elements to remove Anna, have Vasya grow from the death of her father, showing the bonding between herself and the white stallion — but I’m allowed to pout.
Stylistically, this book is gorgeous
The dark atmosphere, descriptions of textures and sounds, the deepening mystery of the Bear… everything is just so beautiful. This is a sit-on-the-couch-under-a-blanket-with-a-cup-of-hot-cocoa type of book. Extra marshmallows. Extra cats.
I gave it 4.5/5 stars. Almost perfect, but hit one wrong note for me. Maybe I’m just picky. (What did you think?)
If you like my reviews, you can show appreciation by buying through my Amazon links, which give me a few pennies if you make a purchase of your own.