The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Publication: January 12th 2017 by Random House UK
Format: Hardback Pages: 336
A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, Pytor hides the gift away and Vasya grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay. – Goodreads.
Set in medieval Lesnaya Zemlya, a quaint little village in northern Rus’, The Bear and the Nightingale features villagers who show signs of double faith (accepting Christianity but still holding onto pagan practises and worship.) Per my extensive and credible research (Wikipedia lol), ‘double faith’ was common in rural areas because Christianity only offered goodies in the afterlife, but it didn’t offer anything for those who needed to survive in the world. Which is why the deities and sprites of the existing pagan beliefs continued to thrive in these areas. The Bear and the Nightingale draws on the mythological elements of Slavic folklore such as the domovoi (household-sprite), dvornik (guardian of the yard), and leshy (woodland spirit), these creatures and their personalities make the story enchanting. I was already a little familiar with some of the characters and stories Katherine Arden borrowed from folklore (like Morozko), but the way she portrayed them was unique and I personally thought she had a respectful approach.
The Bear and the Nightingale was a page-turner. I kept guessing at what would happen next and thought the story was gripping (well, I finished it in one sitting!). The story did progress a little slowly at times, but I didn’t mind this because it gave me time to savour Arden’s writing. I would have felt dissatisfied at the end if the pace had been quicker.
The Bear and the Nightingale is narrated in the third person past tense, and the story is told in a fairy tale style, which makes the prose sound lyrical and captivating. The style was a smart choice because it complemented the mythological parts of the storyline and helped to make their existence in a ‘real’ setting less conflicting and strange.
“They were going to send me to a convent. I decided I would rather freeze in a snowbank.” Her skin shivered all over. “Well, that was before I began to freeze in the snowbank. It hurts.”
The protagonist, Vasilisa (Vasya), was brilliant, growing fond of her and getting attached to her was easy. She was loud, wild, and non-conforming in a society that expected her to act as a child bearing and rearing machine. I thought there were similarities between Vasya and Lada from And I Darken, although Lada was dark and cruel, Vasya shared Lada’s sense of belonging to the wilderness and telling men to stick it. The secondary characters had their own personalities and quirks. Alyosha’s brotherly love and concern for Vasya was sweet, and I loved how much Pytor adored his children and his wife, Marina. The domovoi and the rusalka were my favourite creatures, I liked domovoi’s concern and protectiveness of Vasya and the rusalka was hilarious.
The Bear and the Nightingale has been suggested to fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and Deathless by Catherynne Valente. I was happily smitten by the book and would recommend it to both a Young Adult and Adult reading audience. If you’re fond of retellings and folklore mixed with historical fiction, you might enjoy this book as much as I did.
I will be giving away a copy of The Bear and the Nightingale on 14th January, make sure you check back and enter!