Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone/Book 1
Publisher: Del Rey (January 10, 2017)
Length: 336 pages
Talk about starting the New Year on the right foot. Yes, I know it’s still super-early January, but I’m going to call it now: The Bear and the Nightingale will end up being one of the biggest standouts of 2017. Katherine Arden’s glorious debut is beautiful and everything I expected—vivid, magical, and haunting. The writing is rich and evocative, and if the atmosphere doesn’t immediately sweep you off your feet, I would be very surprised.
At the center of this tale is a spirited young woman named Vasya, though the book begins before her birth. In the forests of northern Russia lives the family of an honorable lord named Pyotr whose wife tells him one night that she is pregnant. Marina Ivanova comes from magical lineage, her own mother having been known to be a powerful witch, and she tells her husband that the baby will be the same. Sadly though, Marina dies in childbirth, leaving the infant, Vasya, to be raised by the nurse and older siblings. Years pass before the pain of losing Marina becomes easier to bear, and Pyotr decides to travel to the court of Moscow to arrange a new marriage for himself.
However, Anna, the imperious and haughty woman he ends up bringing home to his family is unsuited to life in the north, where the people still revere the spirits of nature whom they believe will ward them from evil. Raised to be extremely devout, Anna immediately tries to put a stop to these practices, leading to a clash between her and her new stepdaughter Vasya, whom everyone affectionately says is more wood sprite than young lady. Like her mother predicted, Vasya has a gift which grants her a special connection with the wilderness and the spirits that dwell within. Anna’s arrival has thrown off the delicate balance, and indeed, misfortunes begin to fall upon the village and malicious creatures of the forest are starting to grow bolder. The situation becomes even more unstable as a zealous priest takes up residence in Pyotr’s household, making it his mission to “save” Vasya from herself by undermining her powers and turning the villagers against her.
I truly fell in love with The Bear and the Nightingale from the moment I picked it up. The prose is gorgeous, bringing the world to life, with the people and places described in exquisite detail. The northern winters in this book are those characterized by ten-foot high snowdrifts and near perpetual twilight, yet it amazes me how Arden can still turn such a dark, harsh and cold setting into a thing of beauty. Those who survive here are also strong, compassionate and hardworking people, and you just can’t help but be drawn to them and care about their plights. These characters grabbed and held my attention from the very first page, which featured a scene of children sitting around a hearth listening to fairy tales while the snow and ice raged on outside. Even before our protagonist could arrive on the scene, I was already half enchanted by her family.
And then Vasya came along. I loved her character, and her portrayal was one of the strongest points of the book. There’s something very earnest and down-the-earth in the way she is written—a wild but dutiful daughter, headstrong but not obnoxiously so, and brave without being foolish about it. It was a joy to read about the various relationships between Vasya and the people in her household, whatever tone they might take. Family is such a huge part of this story, and we get to see the different dynamics that come with it.
There are also plenty of allusions to folk legends and mythology. And while The Bear and the Nightingale is a book about changing times, I would say that it’s more than just another story about a clash between religion and “the old ways”. What we have instead is a combination of elements drawn from many sources, including Russian history and folklore, as well as themes from other fairy tales and literary classics. Through this process of combining and transforming, the author has created magic rooted in realism, something that feels different but also familiar. While reading this book, you might start to think you know where the story is going, but don’t be surprised if you get it wrong.
That said, this is not a “gripping read” in the traditional sense. The pacing, which is already quite unhurried, slows to a crawl in some sections, and if it weren’t for the strength of the characterizations I might have found myself struggling. For better or worse, Arden clearly likes to paint the full picture, which I gathered from the excessive insertion of random POVs and minor subplots, even in places where they don’t flow too well. As far as criticisms go though, that’s a very minor complaint on my part, especially since everything else was damn near perfect.
It probably won’t come as a surprise then, that I highly recommend this novel. I think I’ve already said everything I needed to say about this wonderful, enchanting debut by Katherine Arden, and I positively hope that many others will also get the opportunity to discover the magic and joy of The Bear and the Nightingale this year.