Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published by Del Rey on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fairy Tales & Folklore, Fantasy
Source: Goodreads First Reads
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
The Bear and the Nightingale is fairy tale, full of both darkness and wonder. It is always enjoyable to come across a book that is both fresh and also seems to capture all those traits that people love in their familiar fairy tales. The prose is beautifully written, which really helps to give the story that feel of folklore.
Now I have to admit, I am embarrassingly under informed on Russian folklore, but its my understanding that many of the elements of this are strongly rooted in it. The good news for anyone else like me (really rather ignorant of Russian Folklore) is the story does a very good job of making sure the reader knows what each thing is (such as a rusalka) and does so in a way that does not feel like info dumping. It is integrated with the story very well and I also found it to be wonderfully interesting.
Vasya is a character that I immediately wanted to root for. As a child she is a bit wild and untamed. The type of girl that will do what she likes rather than what is expected of her. She is type of character you expect to grow up and challenge established expectations related to gender and class. Of course I’m going to love a girl like that.
Religion and ‘the old beliefs’ are both prominent and somewhat at odds with each other. Vasya’s step mother is a Christian, while Vasya’s mother believed in the household spirits and honored the old beliefs. She struggles not just with this, but also with concealed abilities that put her danger.
Now,unfortunately there were a couple of the things that I think kept me from absolutely loving this book as much as others. First, this book started out very strong for me. However, it seemed to suffer from pacing issues and just didn’t hold my attention as well as I would expect, especially given how quickly I was enamored with the prose and setting.
Also, I almost hate to admit it, but I did not love the role of religion, especially fanatical religion. Now to be fair, the book is likely very fair to its historical setting here. I just have to say, I didn’t care for that aspect as much and wished that it had played a much smaller role. Perhaps this is some of my IRL opinions sneaking in, but I just didn’t need all of the fanatical zealots using their religion to spread hate and violence. There’s enough of that in the real world, and I guess I wanted a bit of a break from it in my reading. Again, this is a personal thing, and is one that I would never list as a weakness of the book, but rather an explanation as to why I didn’t love the book more than I did.
Overall, the strength of Arden’s prose and atmosphere really makes her an author worth following. I may have had a few nit picks with this particular book, but over all I did still enjoy it and hope that her next book I have better luck staying fully engaged from beginning to end.